Posted by: Vicki Burns | June 17, 2015

Threats from Blue-Green Algae Not Always Obvious

Jess Enjoying a Boat ride, Winnipeg River

Jess Enjoying a Boat ride, Winnipeg River

I was dismayed to receive this Channel 5 ABC news piece from Minnesota that describes the death of a dog from  ingesting toxins from blue-green algae in Red Rock Lake in Minnesota. The most concerning thing about this news is that the owner of the dog describes the lake water as being very clear (no apparent blue-green algae present) which is why she felt it was safe to let her dog play in the water. The dog apparently started having seizures within half an hour of being in the water and died on the way to the veterinarian’s clinic.
I consulted with an algal taxonomist who suggests that what  might have been present is Anabaena, a genus of Cyanobacteria  which can produce both Microcystins and anatoxins ( neurotoxins).With the dog becoming so severely ill so quickly it was probably a neurotoxin that he ingested.  Apparently it is not difficult to test the waters to see if any of the neuro toxin producers are present. However at this point I don’t think there is any testing being done in Manitoba or northwestern Ontario .
I have asked both Manitoba Water Stewardship and Ontario Ministry of the Environment whether they are conducting any tests  and I will report back on any responses I get. I don’t want to be fear-mongering but as a dog owner I understand how devastating it would be to lose a beloved pet in this way. I think we are going to have to push for more significant monitoring of our lakes to ensure the safety of our waters, for humans and animals.

Posted by: Vicki Burns | May 27, 2015

Energy East Pipeline – What’s the Problem?

Energy East mejcbannerBIRDSOn May 25 I participated in a press conference organized by the Manitoba Energy Justice Coalition in which they announced the release of a report documenting why the pipeline poses threats to our water. The report, written by Dennis LeNeveu, a retired biophysicist, spells out clearly why we should be concerned about the possibility of leaks from the pipeline which will be carrying diluted bitumen from the oil sands in Alberta all across Canada to ports on the east coast.

Energy East Pipeline Map through Mantioba, courtesy of MEJC

Energy East Pipeline Map, courtesy of MEJC

Here are the points that jumped out at me:
• The Energy East Pipeline will facilitate movement of greater amounts of diluted bitumen adding to the overall problem of climate change by allowing for the release of more CO2 emissions. It is not a case of stopping the use of rail cars to carry oil products but rather adding to the transport capacity across Canada.
• This is not a newly constructed pipeline, specially designed for oil products, but rather a re-purposed natural gas pipeline that is already 40 years old. It is one of 6 TransCanada pipelines that cross the country and that have had 30 incidences of ruptures since 1979, (specific places and dates can be found in page 6 of the report).As well as these known ruptures there are many leaks occurring constantly, too small to be detected. With natural gas, the leaks will simply dissipate in the air but this is not the case for oil products.
• The pipeline crosses several streams, rivers and watersheds in Manitoba and northwestern Ontario as well as the aqueduct that carries water from Shoal Lake to Winnipeg. The aqueduct is 100 years old, made of concrete and full of tiny cracks that result in 5% of the water being transported leaking out. Pollutants from small leaks in the pipeline can seep into the aqueduct the same way that water seeps out of it.
• One of the pollutants in diluted bitumen is benzene which is carcinogenic. One drop in a litre of water is cancer causing and it is not a substance that is routinely tested for in our drinking water. The proximity of the pipeline to the drinking water supplies of many communities in Manitoba, including Winnipeg, poses threats to 2/3 of Manitoba’s population.
To sum up I want to stress that water is the lifeblood of all living things, plants, animals and humans alike. There is simply no substitute for clean, safe water. Yet there are substitutes for our energy needs – we can reduce and eventually replace the use of fossil fuels with renewable energy. So it makes no sense to me why we would threaten what is essential to our survival for something that is not essential and is actually contributing to such serious threats worldwide.

This pipeline is simply too close for comfort. We cannot afford the very real threats to water throughout our province. We need to say no to the Energy East Pipeline!

Posted by: Vicki Burns | March 31, 2015

Water Quality Issues in Florida

I recently returned from a lovely holiday in southwest Florida. This warm, tropical location is like a piece of heaven to those of us who live in wintry places like Winnipeg. But I was both dismayed and encouraged by some of what I saw there and it involved WATER – what else?
Florida is a haven for thousands of people seeking sun and warmth, offering access to beautiful beaches along the Gulf coast of Florida. However, according to Andrew McElwaine, President of the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, 97% of the bays and estuaries are in poor shape and 42% of streams are impaired, deemed unsafe for swimming or fishing. As well 22 of Florida’s major beaches are unsafe for swimming at least 2 weeks of every year. This information comes from the Conservancy’s 2011 Estuaries Report Card. The Estuaries Report Card offers a 10 point plan for restoring, conserving and protecting the estuaries. I was encouraged to see that many of the points were very similar to the Lake Winnipeg Health Plan which I participated in creating in 2013. Drainage/wetlands; restoring natural hydrology; enhancing wastewater treatment; adopting sustainable agricultural practices and conducting comprehensive monitoring were some of the points.

Filter Marsh at Conservancy of Southwest Florida

Filter Marsh at Conservancy of Southwest Florida

We visited the Conservancy of Southwest Florida in Naples and enjoyed one of their electric boat eco-cruises to learn more about the ecology of the mangrove swamps.   I was encouraged to see a demonstration project right on the Conservancy’s site to create a marsh to filter water, much like the concept of constructed and restored wetlands we are trying to promote in our part of the world. We saw another example of a “filter marsh” in Lakes Park in Fort Myers, designed to slow and filter storm-water run-off.
In the end, it was helpful to see several examples of projects designed to restore and protect water but it re-affirmed for me that the issues we face across the Prairies related to water pollution, are surfacing across our continent. We cannot waste any time in adopting the practices that we know will stop the degradation of our waters, if we want to have safe drinkable, swimmable, fishable waters. What will life be without that?

Posted by: Vicki Burns | March 21, 2015

Celebrate World Water Day – March 22, 2015

The UN-Water, the United Nations interagency mechanism for freshwater issues, has designated March 22 as World Water Day. Before 2008, when I first started to pay attention to Lake Winnipeg and general water issues, I probably would have paid no attention to the significance of this. Now, I completely understand and support every effort to raise our awareness of the preciousness of water everywhere.
Recently I came across the striking photography of Edward Burtynsky, who is using his pictures to stimulate more thought about how our actions impact water – urban  development  , industrial development, agriculture to name a few. I was particularly struck by his comment that there is no substitute for water, our very survival individually and as a species depends on the availability of freshwater. By comparison, we have options when it comes to creating the energy we need . We can move away from the use of fossil fuels to renewable energy sources like solar, wind, etc. But there is simply no substitute for water and since it is a finite resource it is critical that we learn to treasure it, to conserve it, and to stop polluting it.
So, let’s celebrate Water, the most  precious resource on planet earth, and ensure that we are not squandering what future generations need for survival.

image of a drop of water creating ripples around it.

Water – our life giving resource

Over the past couple of weeks I’ve been alerted to a couple of articles that confirm my belief that we need to be taking much more aggressive and timely action to decrease the amount of phosphorus  we are letting run-off into our streams, rivers and lakes. The reason – the  phosphorus  that is not being used this year to help blue-green algae grow, may be sinking into the lake sediments and remaining available for algae growth in future years. So our slow action now may be building the kind of legacy that our children and grandchildren will not thank us for.
The first article references a study by Kathryn Cottingham, a biologist at Dartmouth College, with backing from the National Science Foundation that was published in Ecosphere. The study challenges the idea that the blue-green algae growing in current years is a direct result of the phosphorus entering the waters that same year. It reviewed lakes in New England along with data from other lakes, including Lake of the Woods, which is in my home territory. Researchers have known for few years now that the algae blooms in Lake of the Woods are growing despite significant reductions in the annual inputs of phosphorus from industrial sources on the Rainy River. It seems this is happening in other lakes as well adding to the idea that legacy phosphorus is part of the problem.

Lake of the Woods near Keewatin

Lake of the Woods near Keewatin

The second article describes a conference that is being held at Bowling Green State University in April to highlight the growing problem of toxic algae fouling lakes around the world. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration( NOAA) and the National Science Foundation are the two  partners behind the symposium, which is to include algae scientists from China and Austria as featured speakers, as well as experts from across North America.

I’m glad to see this attention being paid to the blue-green algae problem and I hope it will spur faster action. As I’ve said many times before, we do know how to remove much more phosphorus from our human wastewater and from many other sources. The main problem is getting our leaders to do the hard part – committing the $$ and the legislation needed.
Over the many years I spent managing organizations, I often counselled staff that if we don’t deal with the problem now it will just become bigger and harder to resolve in the end. That is exactly what I see happening with this threat to our lakes.

Posted by: Vicki Burns | January 30, 2015

Iowa Lawsuit Landmark Action in Water Protection

I was amazed to see this article in the DesMoines Register detailing the DesMoines Water Utility’s plan to sue 3 counties in Iowa for polluting the drinking water supply for central parts of the state. The water utility believes that the use of tile drainage in agricultural lands in those areas facilitates the transport of nitrates from the croplands into rivers that are used for drinking water supplies. Apparently the concentration of nitrate in some areas was 4 times the safe limit. Included in the article is a graph showing the use of fertilizers on agricultural land quadrupling over the past 50 years.

Safe Drinking Water - Essential of Life

Safe Drinking Water – Essential of Life

Over the past 7 years I have been working in the area of lake conservation and water protection. Lake Winnipeg, the lake I grew up enjoying and summering at for many years, is now seriously threatened by blue-green algae blooms. As I have learned about what is causing the increased threat, I have been frequently reminded of the conflict between agriculture and urbanites over who is “to blame” for the degradation of the water. It is a discussion that has left me with little admiration for our human tendencies to blame and to avoid assuming responsibility.
The reality of our situation here in Manitoba, is that the phosphorus that is feeding the blue-green algae comes from both human sewage and from agricultural run-off originating from manure and fertilizer applications. As I have mentioned in many previous blogs, the city of Winnipeg has been tardy in diminishing our contribution to the problem by delaying the upgrade of 2 of our 3 sewage treatment plants. As well the contribution from agricultural lands has often been disputed. The result has been much talk but not enough action to see meaningful decreases in phosphorus getting into our waters.
The Iowa Utility’s lawsuit is precedent setting and could impact agricultural operations and regulations throughout North America. I hope that voluntary measures will trigger significant action but if not we may see more lawsuits of this kind.

I was honoured to be invited to Wayne State University in Detroit last week to give the final presentation for 2014 in their public series ,Water@Wayne. It was an opportunity to meet members of the multi-disciplinary Urban Watershed Environmental Research Group, as well as graduate students who are all working on this issue from a variety of perspectives. I was struck by how much we can learn from each other. As well it reinforced how beneficial it would be to have a coordinated mechanism for tracking blue-green algae blooms across North America, to document the extent of this problem and to share information about successful interventions.

Water@Wayne lecture Dec.2014

Water@Wayne lecture Dec.2014

Detroit is situated very close to Toledo, Ohio where there was a threat to the city’s drinking water from microcystin, a toxin in blue-green algae, in Lake Erie. The entire city and suburbs of 400,000 people were told not to drink the water coming out of their taps for a couple of days in the summer of 2014. There couldn’t be much more of a red flag than this. These toxic algae blooms are a problem we need to take swifter action to resolve. Apparently some fingers were pointed at Detroit’s contribution to the problem because of the extent of phosphorus and nitrogen making its way to Lake Erie via the Detroit River, from combined sewer overflows that routinely happen in that city. Sounds very familiar to those of us living in Winnipeg and I suspect, in many other North American cities.

Carol Miller and Shawn McElmurray of the Civil and Environmental Engineering Dept. of Wayne State University were both part of the Great Lakes Science Advisory Board, Taking Action on Lake Erie Working Group. This group had a major role in producing the recent report of the IJC, A Balanced Diet for Lake Erie, Reducing Phosphorus Loadings and Harmful Algae Blooms. It’s a thorough, easily understandable report with 16 key recommendations for lowering the phosphorus inputs to Lake Erie. Many of the recommendations could be generalized across North America wherever blue-green algae blooms are appearing.

IJC LEEP Report on Lake Erie

IJC LEEP Report on Lake Erie

At the end of my presentation, comments from the audience seemed to confirm my impressions. We already have many effective ways to decrease phosphorus getting into our waters but what is still lacking is the political leadership to implement the measures required, some of which will be painful to implement both from a financial and social perspective. The consequence of the slow action though, will be increasingly polluted lakes that are not safe, swimmable, fishable or drinkable. I won’t stop pushing for the right actions because to put it simply, I love our lakes and I can’t bear to see them deteriorate because of human actions and subsequent inactions. What about you?

A few weeks ago I wrote about our own personal experience with blue-green algae collecting around our dock on the Winnipeg River, just downstream from the Lake of the Woods outlet. I contacted the local Ontario Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change and was pleased that they collected samples for analysis to determine if what we were seeing was in fact blue-green algae (cyanobacteria) or possibly more benign species.
The results have come back and it was Blue-green algae (cyanobacteria), more specifically microcystis. Further to that, the amount of microcystins in the sample was extremely high. “The algae sample collected at the shoreline (thick algae) returned a result of 3543.55 micrograms per litre (ug/l) total microcystins.  This translates to 3.54355 milligrams per litre (mg/l). The maximum acceptable concentration for microcystin-LR in drinking water, from Ontario Regulation 169/03, is 1.5 ug/l.  Microcystin-LR is a component of total microcystins.  Sample RB924 was a sample of the thick algae near the shoreline.”A second sample was taken at the end of our dock close to our drinking water intake and although it did contain some algae, there were no microcystins found in it.

Evening Sun on the Winnipeg River

Evening Sun on the Winnipeg River

Blue-green algae on the Winnipeg River 2014

Blue-green algae on the Winnipeg River 2014

Apparently this high count of microcystin is the highest that two of the scientists have ever seen so it does merit further thought, not just for our local situation but for the broader situation. The water that flows past our dock ultimately ends up in Lake Winnipeg and it originated from Lake of the Woods. Last year I posted a blog about some research from Oregon State University and the University of North Carolina that documented the increasing toxicity found in some blue-green algae blooms. Our recent experience here on the Winnipeg River certainly is consistent with that research.

The algae samples taken from our shoreline are going to be tested further to analyze more specifically what microcystis species were present and I will report on that once the results are in.
To conclude though, there is no imminent threat from this particular algae as it passed by very quickly and there has been no evidence of it returning. As well, it was only a small area close to the shore that was affected.However, I hope that this information will serve as a red flag that we need to pay more attention to assessing the extent of the problem and ultimately to instating the measures that will decrease this threat.

Posted by: Vicki Burns | October 15, 2014

Hawaiian Paradise, Maui, Suffering From Algae Problems

In previous blog posts I’ve talked about the problems of blue-green algae and red tide that are plaguing parts of Florida, a popular holiday destination for many of us wanting to escape the frigid winters of Canada. Now I’m becoming more aware of similar challenges affecting the sea life around the Hawaiian paradise of Maui.

Sea Turtles on Maui beach 2014, photo courtesy of J. Gosselin

Sea Turtles on Maui beach 2014, photo courtesy of J. Gosselin

In recent years, we have been blessed with the opportunity to spend a few weeks in Maui each winter. One of our favourite pastimes is to splash in the ocean right in front of our condo and we’re often joined by sea turtles that seem to favour that location. Every day that the turtles appear and often decide to climb onto the beach for some rest, there are dozens of people who watch in awe that we can see these ancient animals in their natural surroundings. A few days ago I saw reports linking Fibropapillomatosis, a disease that causes tumours in sea turtles, to excess run-off of nutrients from the land. The Duke University report as stated in the EcoWatch news says “Excess nitrogen is stored in seaweed in the form of arginine, an amino acid. The scientists found high levels of arginine in both polluted waters and sea turtle tumors, and also found higher levels of arginine in an invasive red-algae species that can comprise 90 percent of some sea turtle diets. Because the sea turtles are herbivorous, they must consume twice as much of the invasive algae to get the same caloric intake they would from native algae.”
In Hawaii the focus is on the nutrient, nitrogen, and the problems it is causing. Here in North America the problem nutrient causing blue-green algae in freshwater lakes is phosphorus. Both phosphorus and nitrogen are in human waste, animal waste and fertilizers. However the reasons for these nutrients running off and polluting our waters are the same – urban development and the resultant run-off from our human sewage treatment and agricultural practices and the run-off from fertilizer applications.
The good news from all of this is that we do have at least some of the solutions required to decrease this problem. We do know how to achieve much more thorough sewage treatment and how to decrease agricultural inputs of nutrients. The main thing required now is the leadership and the investment to put these solutions into practice. I hope we can do this very soon because I know how wrong it is for our human actions to be causing such devastation amongst the other animals with whom we share the world.Turtle with tumours

Posted by: Vicki Burns | September 29, 2014

Algae on the Winnipeg River, Ontario Government’s Response

Over the past few years I have devoted much time and energy to learning about what is causing the blue-green algae blooms on Lake Winnipeg and in many other lakes around North America. It is an increasing threat to freshwater lakes on our continent and, in fact, around the world. Now I’m focussing my efforts on promoting the solutions because there are good solutions already out there but they need to be adopted with much greater speed and vigour.

Evening on the Winnipeg River

Evening on the Winnipeg River

Since I was a child, I’ve loved our lakes, swimming in them, canoeing on them, watching the wildlife that lives in and around them. Being by the shores of water seems to strengthen my connection to nature and that connection really does nurture my sense of well-being. So a couple of years ago when my husband and I were fortunate enough to acquire our own place on the Winnipeg River just downstream of Lake of the Woods, I felt very blessed indeed. However shortly after taking possession of the place, we had blue-green algae show up right around our dock and our water intake line. My work on blue-green algae had suddenly become very personal.

Algae on the Winnipeg River Sept. 2014

Algae on the Winnipeg River Sept. 2014

This year we recently had algae congregating around our dock , although we’re not sure if it is cyanobacteria or other, more benign species of algae. I contacted the Environment Officer with the Ontario Ministry of the Environment in Kenora and was very pleased when he arranged to come out the next day and take some samples. The samples are being analyzed in Toronto and apparently will tell us what species of algae are present and if it does include cyanobacteria, whether the toxin microcystin is present. It’s impressive that the Ontario government is doing this type of testing at home owner’s request. The results should be back within another week or so and I’ll post them in case you’re interested.
The blue-green algae problem is a measurable one – we can collect data on how much phosphorus is getting into our lakes every year and we can measure whether there is a decrease in those amounts based on various actions and interventions we take. So its reassuring to know that the Ontario government is facilitating the collection of this data. Knowledge is power and the more power we can bring to bear on this challenge the better.

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