December 10, 2019

Winnipeg
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Sense of urgency needed for water woes

Editorial

"Can’t."

There aren’t many discussions of issues requiring urgent action — political, legislative, environmental, public policy-related or otherwise — in which this blunt admission of inability is considered an adequate strategic answer.

And yet as the debate heated up again this week over the city of Winnipeg’s continuing discharge of pollution into the Red River — and ultimately, Lake Winnipeg — the operative response from officials regarding how the city is going to address its effluent-discharge issues seems to be, "We can’t."

As it is in most cases when it’s offered up in response to a call for action, "can’t" simply isn’t satisfactory. When it comes to reducing the amount of pollution being released into the Red River on an ongoing basis, what’s required is a reasonably framed "when" rather than a weakly deflected "if."

The inadequacy of the answer was given extra emphasis by the reappearance this week of the dreaded blue-green algae blooms that have plagued Lake Winnipeg beaches in recent years, the result of an excess of phosphorus that has made its way into the lake.

Algae blooms have returned to Lake Winnipeg. ((Mikaela MacKenzie / Free Press files)

Algae blooms have returned to Lake Winnipeg. ((Mikaela MacKenzie / Free Press files)

On Tuesday, Winnipeg South MP Terry Duguid took the city to task in response to a Free Press story that reported 8.65 billion litres of diluted raw sewage had been released into Winnipeg’s rivers in 2018, predominantly as a result of storm-related overflow from the city’s combined sewer system.

"We need to scale up our efforts on Lake Winnipeg," Mr. Duguid said, "and that really means tackling pollution at the source."

Then on Wednesday, city officials informed the province they will be unable to meet a Dec. 31 deadline for reducing the amount of phosphorus being released into the Red River from Winnipeg’s North End sewage treatment plant. Rather than meeting the demand for a significant reduction of phosphorus output by year’s end, the city asked for an additional two years just to develop a plan to reduce the plant’s phosphorus and nitrogen discharge.

In requesting the extension, the city rejected a stopgap measure suggested by the Lake Winnipeg Foundation and the International Institute of Sustainable Development, which involves adding ferric chloride at the treatment site, which has been shown in other jurisdictions to reduce phosphorus concentrations.

"After a review of capacities and process risks, it was determined that there are no interim options that will be able to reduce phosphorus to the standards required... by our Environment Licence Act," acting water and waste director Tim Shanks wrote in an email to city council.

It will come as no comfort whatsoever to cottagers, residents and those whose livelihoods depend on the green-slimed lake that the city currently proposes to begin work on retrofitting the plant in 2020, with construction scheduled for completion in 2025.

It will come as no comfort whatsoever to cottagers, residents and those whose livelihoods depend on the green-slimed lake that the city currently proposes to begin work on retrofitting the plant in 2020, with construction scheduled for completion in 2025.

In fairness, the problems in Lake Winnipeg are not solely the creation of the city and its Red River outflow, and the required multibillion-dollar fixes to Winnipeg’s sewage and treatment infrastructure require a capital infusion far beyond the fiscal capabilities of an urban centre with a limited tax base and a heavy dependence on support from senior levels of government.

Cleaning up the water that flows from the city limit to the ailing depths of Lake Winnipeg will require an urgent commitment from all levels of government.

Minimizing its importance, as Winnipeg appears to be doing as it focuses on such dry-land infrastructure initiatives as roads, railway underpasses and transit corridors, is simply not an option.

In other words, when it comes to failing to act on Winnipeg’s waterway woes, the operative word is "can’t."

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board.

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