Over the last few weeks Manitoba and Saskatchewan have been plagued with summer flooding related to massive rainfall and already water-logged land. There has been a lot of talk about how to decrease the negative impacts of flooding in Manitoba by creating a bigger channel to drain some of the excess water from Lake Manitoba , ultimately into Lake Winnipeg. The problems of flooding around Lake Manitoba have been exacerbated by the diversion of some of the Assiniboine River flow into Lake Manitoba in order to decrease threats to Portage La Prairie and other communities downstream.
This approach of large engineered solutions is certainly useful for harm prevention to a great extent. However, it doesn’t help those upstream of the diversions and it doesn’t take into account drought resilience, decreasing transport of excess nutrients that are feeding blue-green algae in our lakes, or the water holding capacity of wetlands. A recent report from John Pomeroy of the University of Saskatchewan has determined that drainage of wetlands over the last 50 years on the Prairies has increased the peak flow during flood events by over 30% and that if we were able to restore wetlands to their level of several decades ago, it could reduce the peak flows by 25 % . Those are very significant numbers.

Satellite image of Hurricane Katrina, courtesy of NASA

Satellite image of Hurricane Katrina, courtesy of NASA

I am aware that there is some questioning of this approach and as yet, it has not been seriously embraced by decision makers who are controlling how our flood reduction $$ are being spent. So when I saw this news about wetland restoration around Lousiana and how it is being viewed as a key flood prevention strategy, I was impressed. We are all aware of the devastation Katrina brought to New Orleans. If they believe that restoring the wetlands in their area can help prevent future disasters, can we not learn from that?
The Manitoba government has recently proposed strong regulations to stop wetland drainage and that is terrific. Now we need to move quickly on developing a comprehensive plan along with Saskatchewan to restore wetlands. Large engineered solutions for moving water are one part of the solution but restoring the water holding capacity of our land is equally important.

For the past few weeks our news has been dominated by the summer floods in Saskatchewan and Manitoba and just today I received this news of significant flooding around the North Central United States. Today I also listened to an interesting piece on CBC radio in which 2 well known scientists, John Pomeroy, University of Saskatchewan and Dave Sauchyn, University of Regina talked about what was contributing to the floods. One thing that is very evident is that summer floods are a new phenomenon. It used to be that most of the major flooding occurred in springtime as the snowmelt sent volumes of water into our rivers. However with the increased incidence of heavy rainfall, sometimes lasting days, summer floods are becoming a real risk.

Flooding across road summer 2014

Flooding across road summer 2014

The flood of 2011, which centred mainly around the Assiniboine River, has been referred to as a one in three hundred year flood but as we now see, it has recurred 3 short years later. It is hard to imagine the frustration, stress and hopelessness that people living in the path of the flood must feel. And for those of us concerned about our lakes, we know that all this flooding will inevitably bring more phosphorus which feeds the blue-green algae that are fouling too many of our waterways.
In addition to all the suffering of humans, animals and damage to the environment, there are the financial costs that every Canadian taxpayer will bear. Costs related to floods will be partially paid by provincial taxpayers, partially by all of us federal taxpayers and of course, a lot borne by the individuals who suffer the consequences of flooding to their own properties. I think it is time for us to get very, very serious about how to decrease these risks in the future.
Its time to create a plan to restore a certain % of our drained wetlands, to “rehabilitate” the water holding capacity of our land. I know this is not an easy task but personally I would prefer to have part of my tax dollars go to prevention rather than all to crisis management. According to the Centre for Hydrology, University of Saskatchewan drainage in the Yorkton, Saskatchewan area since 1958 increased the severity of the 2011 flood by 32%. Further to that they predict that if wetlands could be restored to 1958 levels it would decrease peak flows during floods by 26 %.
So if we humans have been smart enough to send men to the moon, surely we can be smart enough to figure out how to rehabilitate our lands to restore the water holding capacity and other related benefits. Let’s get going on prevention before the next crisis occurs!

Recent news from the city of Portage La Prairie is really encouraging because they are trying progressive new technologies to remove phosphorus and nitrogen from their municipal wastewater treatment plant. However the most interesting part of what they are doing is recycling the phosphorus and turning it into a fertilizer that can be sold to farmers. It can potentially reduce the cost of good wastewater treatment by developing a revenue stream out of what we once considered simply waste. The phosphorus extraction technique comes from Ostara Technologies and the nitrogen technique from Veolia.

Lake Winnipeg west side shore

Lake Winnipeg west side shore

This is excellent news for Lake Winnipeg and possibly other lakes. Decreasing the amount of phosphorus and nitrogen that is in the effluent we release in our wastewater plants and lagoons throughout Manitoba, will ultimately decrease the food supply for the blue-green algae that is threatening our water bodies.
Another piece of good news came with the announcement that the province of Manitoba will not grant the city of Winnipeg another extension for upgrading their North End Sewage Treatment plant. The city of Winnipeg has been dragging its feet on getting all 3 wastewater treatment plants up to standard. The West End plant is operating within guidelines but both the South and North End Plants are behind schedule by several years. Given that the city of Winnipeg is the single largest point source of phosphorus to Lake Winnipeg, it is shameful that we haven’t dealt with this problem to this point. I’m glad to know that it will all be complete within 5 years by 2019.
So congratulations to the city of Portage La Prairie for their leadership on this. Let’s make sure Winnipeg follows suit.

These two warnings, from Ontario and New York, about blue-green algae blooms came to my attention over the last couple of days. The warnings from New York State include a comprehensive map and a description of what water bodies are being tested routinely. I was disappointed to see Central Park Lake, in the famous park, listed but being amidst such a dense population would likely put it at high risk.
We’ve had no warnings of blue-green algae blooms in my home province of Manitoba yet but given our extended winter and slow start to summer, that is not a surprise. I would like to track incidence of blue-green algae throughout Canada this summer so if you become aware of a bloom in your area, I would appreciate receiving a message about it. I can be contacted at vickiburns@mts.net

Central Park Lake photo courtesy of Mytravelphotos.net

Central Park Lake photo courtesy of Mytravelphotos.net

As I have mentioned in previous blog posts, the threats of blue-green algae are increasing and becoming more common in many water bodies throughout North America. The problems of too much phosphorus and nitrogen, getting into our waterways are not limited to any particular region. We do already know some of the ways we can decrease those excess nutrients from getting into our waters but we need to do a much better job of educating the public and our elected officials so that the right choices can be made. I’ve seen several organizations using the slogan “swimmable, fishable, drinkable” to describe our goals for freshwater and I couldn’t agree more!

The province of Manitoba today( June 11, 2014) announced a comprehensive new approach to surface water management  which will benefit water quality in our lakes, decrease flood severity and build in some preparation for droughts. In a nutshell, the most important piece of news is much stronger regulation and protection of various types of wetlands. They have created a document, Towards Sustainable Drainage, and are asking for public comments on it till December 2014.
This is a very important step in helping Lake Winnipeg and other Manitoba lakes because it means that wetlands that still exist will not be drained unless there is an urgent need to do so and if that does occur, there will have to be substantial compensation in order to recreate the ecological benefits provided by that wetland. I think the easiest way to explain why wetlands are so important, is to describe them as nature’s kidneys. They filter out much of what we don’t want getting into our lakes, including the phosphorus and nitrogen that are fuelling the increased blue-green algae blooms. They also act like sponges, soaking up water and releasing it slowly which is why they are helpful in decreasing the overall severity of floods and droughts.

Wetland, photo courtesy of Ducks Unlimited Canada

Wetland, photo courtesy of Ducks Unlimited Canada

However, before we jump to thinking our lakes’ problems have been solved, we need to remember that this new approach will prevent further damage by protecting existing wetlands. It does not yet move into the area of restoring the 70% of wetlands that have been drained over the past century. So the amount of phosphorus that is currently getting into our lakes through non-point sources from the landscape will not decrease until we can recreate some of the filtering capacity that those drained wetlands used to provide. And of course, I’ll be a broken record now and repeat once again, that we need to get going on addressing the point sources of phosphorus, primarily our sewage treatment.
To sum up though, I think the Manitoba government should be congratulated on bringing forward this new, progressive approach. It has multiple benefits and future generations will be glad that this government started to really turn around how we had been managing water.

The Grade 8 class from Tanner’s Crossing School in Minnedosa, Manitoba have studied the challenges of blue-green algae threatening Lake Winnipeg and have created colourful books filled with imaginative stories. I visited their school recently and was so impressed with the knowledge they have acquired and the creativity they utilized to put the facts into story form. Following my presentation to them, they impressed me even more with how much they understood about what we need to do to stop degrading our lakes with too much blue-green algae.

Grade 8 Calss with Saving Lake Winnipeg books, Tanner's Crossing School

Grade 8 Calss with Saving Lake Winnipeg books, Tanner’s Crossing School

As many of us know, education and inspiring our youth is the hope for a brighter future. I think that one of the most important things we can do is to help young people understand the potential of each one of us to create the changes we need to secure a more sustainable future on this planet. The students I met in Minnedosa are well on their way to understanding that.
One of the issues we talked about was the importance of doing absolutely the best job we can in treating our human sewage before releasing it back into whatever river or stream will carry it away. As their teacher said, sometimes the cheapest way is not the best for the long-term. Nothing could be truer when it comes to our conventional sewage treatment. Saving money now is adding hugely to the costs that will be borne by our children and grandchildren. I, personally, don’t feel very good about that and I hope our city council in Winnipeg will start to understand this as well.

Cattails in Marsh

Cattails in Marsh

Recently I attended a demonstration of an end product of IISD’s Bioeconomy project, the harvesting of cattails and  native grasses to make pellets for producing heat energy in a pellet burning stove. The burning of these pellets has been used this past winter to heat the Living Prairie Museum in Winnipeg and on the day of the presentation, the heat produced was very comforting and more than adequate!
This project is a great example of turning biomass into a usable and sustainable energy source. It is an area that is particularly close to my heart as my father, Ernie Robertson, started the Biomass Energy Institute back in 1970 to encourage research and development in the use of alternative energy sources. The goal was to allow us to move away from our dependence on fossil fuels. At the time many people called him “crazy Ernie” but now his ideas are being well recognized as we realize that there is no time to waste in diversifying our energy sources.

Pellet Stove Burning photo courtesy of IISD

Pellet Stove Burning photo courtesy of IISD

In addition, there are other important benefits to the harvesting of cattails and other native grasses, and those relate to the ability of cattails to take in phosphorus, thereby preventing it from getting into our waterways and feeding blue-green algae blooms. The threats of blue-green algae blooms are increasing in lakes all across North America and elsewhere in the world so projects like the Cattails for Clean Waterways can have benefits in multiple locations. The economic opportunities of creating a new heating source at the same time as helping to clean our lakes, is really exciting. Personally, I would love to get a pellet stove and warm myself on our cold winter nights, all the while knowing that this is helping to clean our waterways at the same time. Check out this video from IISD if you want to know more about this project.

I’ve written about the challenges of blue-green algae in Florida in previous posts because having a personal connection with this area causes me to pay close attention to any news from there. My parents had the privilege of enjoying winters in Florida for 25 years after they retired and other family members continue that tradition now.
This post from Earthjustice came to my attention recently and although it is not heralding good news, I was pleased to see the straightforward information about what is causing the increase in blue-green algae blooms and in particular this message “This pollution is preventable. Now that we know how the nitrogen and phosphorus in sewage, manure and fertilizer tip Florida’s delicate ecological balance, we have a responsibility to do something about it.”

St. Lucie River Florida, photo courtesy of Dick Miller Earthjustice

St. Lucie River Florida, photo courtesy of Dick Miller Earthjustice

That message is relevant across North America, and nowhere is it more applicable than here in Manitoba, home to Lake Winnipeg – the 10th largest lake in the world and one of the most threatened lakes. I know that many thousands of people are concerned about the state of our lake but they don’t know what can be done to turn things around. My goal is to offer the information I’ve learned in hopes of letting people know that the solutions exist. We just need to get going on putting them into place and the very first should be upgrading our sewage treatment in both cities and rural areas. Addressing point sources of phosphorus( sewage treatment) should be a “no brainer” but often is not because of the cost.
Florida has been a welcome reprieve from our icy winters for over a century now. I hope we can count on that continuing without worry about toxic algae blooms threatening the landscape.

One of the goals I have in writing this blog is to take what I hear from scientists and other environmental professionals, and turn it into information that the general public can understand. It is so easy for professionals to use the language and jargon that is common in their field and not alter it when speaking to others. Although it is understandable why this happens, it can impede getting the correct information and message out to the public, to policy-makers and to our elected officials.
In water and lake protection work, understanding where the problem elements and pollutants are coming from is key to being able to stop them getting into the water. In particular, with the challenge of blue-green algae blooms (some of which contain dangerous toxins) the problem elements are phosphorus and to a lesser extent , nitrogen. Amongst the science and conservation professionals, we often hear the terms point source and nonpoint source phosphorus used but most of the general public are not familiar with those terms. If we are to gain support for investments in decreasing phosphorus and nitrogen getting into our lakes, we need to broaden the understanding of the point source vs. nonpoint source terms. Why – because the methods for intervening are very different and although, both sources need to be decreased it is much easier to start with the point sources.

Point Source & Nonpoint Source  image courtesy of t4-1contaminants blogspot

Point Source & Nonpoint Source
image courtesy of t4-1contaminants blogspot

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)” defines point source pollution as any single identifiable source of pollution from which pollutants are discharged, such as a pipe, ditch, ship or factory smokestack. Factories and sewage treatment plants are two common types of point sources” when we are discussing water pollution and blue-green algae blooms.
The U.S. EPA defines nonpoint source (NPS)as “coming  from many diffuse sources. NPS pollution is caused by rainfall or snowmelt moving over and through the ground. As the runoff moves, it picks up and carries away natural and human-made pollutants, finally depositing them into lakes, rivers, wetlands, coastal waters, and even our underground sources of drinking water.”
In future blogs, I’ll discuss why and how we should be decreasing impacts from our point sources of phosphorus more effectively and then, get working  on the nonpoint sources.

I just came across this article about the extent of harmful algae blooms in almost every water body on Long Island last summer. Dr. Chris Gobler, from Stonybrook South Hampton, was giving a lecture on the deteriorating state of waterways in that area and it caught my attention because there are so many similarities to what is going on here in Manitoba with Lake Winnipeg and other lakes suffering under a growing algal load.

Algae on Long Island waterway

Algae in Marratooka Pond, Long Island, photo courtesy of the East End Beacon

There is one major difference though and that is the focus on nitrogen in the Long Island area versus our focus on phosphorus here on the Prairies. I understand that nitrogen is more of the problem element in areas where saltwater is involved while our focus for freshwater lakes is on limiting phosphorus. However the similarities are very strong regarding where the problems are emanating from – according to Dr. Gobler – human wastewater and agricultural fertilizer.
It reinforces my belief that throughout North America we need to adopt much more effective wastewater treatment systems and BMPs (best management practices) in agriculture. The longer we wait, the more it will cost in the end both economically and environmentally.

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