A new pilot project being run in East St. Paul could prove to be a gamechanger.
In early July, researchers from the International Institute for Sustainable Development built and planted a total of 10 floating wetlands in two retention ponds in East St. Paul. The project, run by IISD’s bioeconomy and water policy lead Richard Grosshans, will test how effective the wetlands are at removing harmful pollutants from freshwater lakes over time.
"We’ve done a lot of watershed management projects over the past 15 years, working with municipalities and watershed districts to evaluate the other benefits that these systems provide," Grosshans said. "Usually a retention pond is put in to address flooding issues. But we’ve identified other benefits, (like) carbon storage, water quality, all this really cool other stuff."
East St. Paul has a number of retention ponds throughout the municipality, and the older ones are full of duckweed and algae. The RM connected with the IISD about coming up with a sustainable solution to their water woes.
"We are interested to see the performance of these floating wetlands and how they impact our water quality within these stormwater retentions," Kurtis Johnson, assistant operations manager for the RM of East St. Paul, told The Herald. "What we’re hoping is that the floating wetlands will take up some of the excess nutrient loading that’s going on in these areas. Hopefully, that will result in better looking ponds."
The wetland project is among a number of sustainable projects the RM is engaged in, including a major renaturalization at Switsun Family Heritage Park.
"This connects very well with our climate action plan and the way the RM wants to move forward with a lot of these projects," Johnson added.
"These are the first stormwater pond islands in Manitoba," Grosshans said of the project, which he described as a pilot scale demonstration featuring one established pond, and one newer pond.
The project builds on years of research the IISD has done at the Experimental Lakes Area in northwestern Ontario, as well as research Grosshans was involved in when he was working with Ducks Unlimited.
"I’ve always been fascinated by these types of systems," Grosshans said. "We started playing around with these islands, building our own out of floating bread trays. We saw that with a very small amount of phosphorus, we can see both visually and analytically how the plants respond quite dramatically. A good thing for plants, but environmentally you get a lot of problems."
In 2019, the IISD installed a similar floating wetland system in a wastewater lagoon in Dunnotar, Man.
"They’re in year three and they’re growing exceptionally well," Grosshans said.
Now that they’re in the two ponds in East St. Paul, Grosshans added, the wetlands are already at work.
"They’ll produce lots of roots into the water, where a lot of the water treatment happens," he said. "The plants will create these massive columns of roots. All that slime, bacteria, algae, little invertebrates and minnows will create an ecosystem which will help take up nutrients and break down contaminants."
As the islands become established, residents and visitors who pass the ponds can expect not only flourishing plant life, but increased wildlife activity, as well.
"Already there’s a family of ducks lounging along one of the islands," Grosshans said. "They’ll be hanging out on and around the islands."
Grosshans said he wouldn’t be surprised to see an improvement in water quality as early as this summer.
"Hopefully, we’ll see an improvement of the water this season," he said. "The smaller pond you may actually see that sooner, because the ratio from water to surface on that one is pretty good. The bigger pond may need an additional island at some point."
The data collected in East St. Paul could have impacts internationally.
"This is connected to a much larger research program," Grosshans said. "We have a bunch of islands out at the Experimental Lakes where we look at treatment of oil. We’re looking at how they break down hydro carbons and antibiotics and other contaminants. We’ve looked at herbicides and pesticides. Plants are amazing tools for treating contaminants."
Sheldon Birnie is the reporter/photographer for The Herald. The author of Missing Like Teeth: An Oral History of Winnipeg Underground Rock (1990-2001), his writing has appeared in journals and online platforms across Canada, the U.S. and the U.K. A husband and father of two young children, Sheldon enjoys playing guitar and rec hockey when he can find the time. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org Call him at 204-697-7112