A neglected election issue

Saving our lakes should be a priority


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Manitoba is a province defined by its lakes, both great and small. Summer days at the beach, evenings around the campfire, families gathered listening to rain on the cottage roof. Being at the lake brings us together; it defines who we are as people and as a province.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 11/04/2016 (2421 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Manitoba is a province defined by its lakes, both great and small. Summer days at the beach, evenings around the campfire, families gathered listening to rain on the cottage roof. Being at the lake brings us together; it defines who we are as people and as a province.

It’s alarming, then, to hear increasingly bad news about Manitoba’s lakes or even worse, to see it for ourselves. Harmful algae blooms continue to grow, resulting in drinking-water advisories, beach closures, and threats to all communities that depend on and enjoy the province’s lakes.

Lake Winnipeg, the 10th-largest freshwater lake in the world by surface area, has received international attention for its declining water quality. This underscores the urgency with which Manitobans must act to protect our lakes and the economic, cultural and ecological value they provide.

MIKAELA MacKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES Netley-Libau marsh, just off Lake Winnipeg: climate change issues and flooding risks aren't on the provincial election radar.

Luckily, we already have many of the answers in hand.

IISD Experimental Lakes Area (IISD-ELA), a research facility nestled in a corner of northwestern Ontario and headquartered in Winnipeg, is the only place in the world where whole-lake ecosystem studies can be conducted. In this series of lakes and watersheds in northwestern Ontario, experiments on phosphorus loading over the last 50 years have yielded results that have contributed to the reduction of algae blooms in lakes around the world.

While the experiments may be complex, their message is simple: the most effective solution to reduce algae blooms is to restrict, monitor and carefully manage the amount of phosphorus entering lakes.

The phosphorus reaching Lake Winnipeg comes from both urban wastewater and agricultural landscapes in Canada and several U.S. states.

These sources need to be addressed in a co-ordinated and balanced manner. While a larger proportion of phosphorus arrives in the lake from agricultural sources across the watershed, these sources are a greater challenge given the number of jurisdictions and level of co-ordination needed.

An immediate benefit can be derived by improving Winnipeg’s wastewater treatment system: a concentrated, localized phosphorus source.

Despite the clear need to address phosphorus at Winnipeg’s wastewater treatment plants, progress has been stalled for more than a decade while Lake Winnipeg continues to suffer. The time for finger-pointing has passed; it is time to roll up our sleeves.

We must usher in a new era of political co-operation, recognizing the urgent and complex challenges threatening Lake Winnipeg require collective investment and action. Provincial and municipal governments must agree upon an immediate course of action, looking to the larger shared goal of a healthy Lake Winnipeg for all Manitobans.

When municipal and provincial governments agree to work together, others will come to the table.

Meaningful improvement in Lake Winnipeg’s condition will require a sustained collaborative effort from all three levels of government in Canada, the participation of First Nations and co-ordinated action with American neighbours.

Not only is such an effort possible, it has already resolved similar problems in other lakes. ELA research led to policy changes and wastewater treatment upgrades in the 1970s that greatly improved water quality in Lake Erie and other lakes around the world.

And in February 2016, jurisdictions around Lake Erie agreed to achieve a further 40 per cent reduction in phosphorus loading — a commitment that has been called challenging but certainly achievable.

We cannot shy away from similar challenging commitments in Manitoba. We have the opportunity to learn from other jurisdictions, as well as from the world-class research taking place in our backyard. The issues we face are not insurmountable; others have faced them and succeeded.

On April 20, the next provincial government has the opportunity to lead the charge in bringing together municipal, federal and international leaders to generate the collective political will to improve the health of Lake Winnipeg.

Leadership starts at home, but from there it grows. Our provincial commitment will be the gauge against which other levels of government assess the value of their involvement.

Alexis Kanu is executive director of the Lake Winnipeg Foundation.

Scott Higgins is a research scientist with the IISD Experimental Lakes Area.

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