Algae explosion fouls Lake Winnipeg

Smelly growth can make people and animals ill

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Murray McCaig, a former Olympic windsurfer, used to spend his summers, three to four hours a day, practising on the same lake that now makes his children and their friends sick.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 31/07/2017 (1882 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Murray McCaig, a former Olympic windsurfer, used to spend his summers, three to four hours a day, practising on the same lake that now makes his children and their friends sick.

The surface of Lake Winnipeg at Victoria Beach is green and pale blue in spurts of algae that cover the water in an oil spill-like fashion. A blue, crusty substance has taken over the beach’s rocks.

The scent of it all made McCaig’s child’s friend throw up.

MURRAY MCCAIG Algae on the surface of Lake Winnipeg near Victoria beach looks similar to an oil slick.

“There was just that rotting algae smell floating up from the beach to the cottages,” he said. “It’s really quite depressing,” McCaig said.

He has never seen the lake this bad.

“It makes me feel like it’s not going to be around for (my kids),” he said.

McCaig has been coming to Victoria Beach since he was four and he knows generational cottagers in the area who are also concerned.

But the complex nature of the problem means there’s no easy solution, according to a retired biology professor.

Eva Pip, who taught at the University of Winnipeg, points to agricultural runoff, sewer fields, cottage development, deforestation and the destruction of wetlands as some of the contributors to the problem.

They all increase the amount of nutrients in the lake, which, along with warm weather, breed algae.

“Because they are like bacteria, under ideal conditions, they can multiply every 20 minutes… the population can literally explode,” she said.

Last week, the federal government promised $25.7 million over five years to the Lake Winnipeg Basin Program that will focus on reducing nutrient pollution, enhancing collaboration to protect freshwater quality in the basin and supporting engagement of Indigenous people in resolution of the issue.

Alexis Kanu, executive director of the Lake Winnipeg Foundation, called it an “important investment,” but said more areas of government need to be involved to address all the contributors to the problem — such as infrastructure for rural wastewater systems and guidelines for farmers.

Pip called on all levels of government — municipal, provincial, and federal — to create and enforce stronger regulations to curb some of the practices that pour nutrients into the lake.

Individuals can help too, she said. Pip advises people to look for the green and lake-friendly stamps when shopping for hygiene and cleaning products. She hopes people can use less fertilizer on their lawns and gardens as well.

The severity of algae at different parts of Lake Winnipeg depends on the wind. While Victoria Beach has seen an influx of algae blooms, people living closer to Dunnottar haven’t seen them yet.

McCaig still windsurfs near Victoria Beach when the algae permits, but the water that splashes up clogs his nose until he can’t breathe.

“It’s really surprising how it affects your body,” he said.

It also affects pets. Dogs in Minnesota and Ontario have died after drinking from lakes and ponds infected with a high concentration of blue-green algae.

Matt McCandless, executive director of the International Institute for Sustainable Development, said he doesn’t yet know how the lake’s zebra mussel problem will impact the algae, but said Lake Erie researchers saw algae increase in beach areas when the mussels arrived.

“The situation is likely going to intensify,” he said.

McCandless also indicated fishers may have a false idea of how the algae affects the lake. While it may increase catches in the short term, the algae will eventually die, depleting oxygen levels and harming the lake.

stefanie.lasuik@freepress.mb.ca

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