OTTAWA — Lake Winnipeg’s damaging algae blooms will only get worse if the federal government doesn't get its act together, an auditor reported Thursday.
"There needs to be an increased level of co-operation, with a focus on the actual outcomes in the water," environment commissioner Jerry DeMarco told the Free Press.
"Otherwise, we can continue going from decade to decade, and having meetings… but if the water quality isn't getting any better, that is what really matters."
DeMarco, who works in the auditor general's office, analyzed work done by Environment Canada and the federal Agriculture Department to reduce nutrients in the Lake Winnipeg watershed, which encompasses the area from the Rockies to northwestern Ontario.
The auditor found that the departments must improve communication with each other to avoid duplicating work.
As a result, Environment Canada has selected monitoring sites without being sure to include locales where best management practices had been implemented, which auditors found to be a missed opportunity to measure the effects of interventions.
The departments formed joint science co-ordination committees in 2018 — but they only met once.
Both departments have done a shoddy job of sharing their research with non-scientists. The auditor found the departments hold conferences, but do little to translate their findings or ongoing work to groups with a stake in the watershed such as fishers, municipalities and Indigenous leaders.
The auditor made the same observations about two other watersheds in Canada, Lake Erie in Ontario and the St. John River basin in New Brunswick.
In response, the two departments said they would restart the joint committees and have a communications strategy by late 2022.
The Lake Winnipeg Foundation said phosphorus loading will worsen because trends suggest increasing amounts of water will enter the lake.
The weather fluctuates, as seen with this year’s drought, but wetland drainage and wetter springs increase flow into Lake Winnipeg, said foundation head Alexis Kanu.
"This problem is likely to get worse without specific efforts to reduce water flow and capture phosphorus on the landscape," she wrote.
Winnipeg South MP Terry Duguid, who has overseen Lake Winnipeg projects for the Liberals, said his government is trying to tackle that through everything from upgrades to sewage treatment in Winnipeg to Indigenous conservation projects.
"It is a really ambition agenda to really transform our protection and management of freshwater," he said.
"Lake Winnipeg won’t wait and we need to get on with restoring (its) health."
The auditor said the Trudeau government needs to clarify its competing objectives, with goals to reduce algae blooms while ramping up agricultural production, which will increase nutrient runoff.
"Even if we left the nutrient levels the same year to year, over time the problem would likely get worse, simply because the water temperature is going up," DeMarco said.
"It's a difficult question; it requires co-operation, not only between the two departments" but also governments, he said.
Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault said that plays into the government’s pledge from two years ago to revive a federal water agency for the Prairies, that would co-ordinate provincial regulation of water flow and federal research.
"He said we could do better and I agree," said Guilbeault.
Duguid said the water agency is coming soon.
"We commit to its formal establishment in 2022, that is in black and white, but it is well on its way."