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.

Posted by: Vicki Burns | September 10, 2014

Lake Winnipeg’s Health Connected to the Mayoral Race?

Winnipeg’s civic election on Oct. 22 is a pivotal day for Lake Winnipeg although most Manitobans are likely unaware of that. Whoever becomes mayor that day will inherit a significant role in the future health of Lake Winnipeg.
That’s because the City of Winnipeg’s sewage-treatment plants are the single largest point source of phosphorus to Lake Winnipeg. And that same phosphorus is the accelerant in the growth of blue-green algae blooms that plague our great lake.
As many are aware, in 2013 Lake Winnipeg received the unfortunate distinction of being selected the Threatened Lake of the World due to the extensive blue-green algae blooms affecting the health of the lake. It is long past time to make the connection between the city’s inaction and the deteriorating state of Lake Winnipeg.

Grand Beach, Lake Winnipeg June 2014

Grand Beach, Lake Winnipeg June 2014

In short, the City of Winnipeg has been delaying the upgrades of our north end and south end plants for some years now, even though they were issued a licence by the provincial government that requires the upgrades to be completed by 2012 (south end) and 2014 (north end).
The north end plant is the fourth-largest phosphorus polluter of any industrial facility in Canada. On top of that, it sits a mere 50 kilometres downstream from Lake Winnipeg.
This lethargic approach to the upgrades add more frustrations for many who want to save the lake. The lack of leadership from the highest office in our largest city with the greatest number of citizens who enjoy the proximity and great values of Lake Winnipeg is very telling and symbolic. How can we possibly expect others farther away from Lake Winnipeg to commit to doing the right thing, when we can’t even get our own house in order?
It is true there are many sources of phosphorus across Lake Winnipeg’s great watershed. But it is also true half of that phosphorus is coming from within Manitoba’s own borders. More telling, a significant portion of Manitoba’s contribution comes from Winnipeg’s sewage.
Recently, the Save Lake Winnipeg Project surveyed the mayoral candidates to seek their interest and commitment to getting the upgrades completed on the south end and north end sewage plants. The results of that survey are most telling — two candidates ignored the survey by giving no response whatsoever: Gord Steeves and Paula Havixbeck. Both of those candidates have had prior experience on Winnipeg city council, the same council that has repeatedly allowed delays.
That should signal a lot in terms of what we can expect from them on Lake Winnipeg’s failing health should they be successful in their mayoral bid.
Thankfully, every other candidate responded with thoughtful comments and commitments to ensuring the sewage upgrades were on their agenda.
The damage to the health of the lake and all life that depends on it, the loss of economic benefit to the province through threats to the commercial fishery, tourism and recreational use, the decrease in property values on lake residences and the effects on First Nations communities around the lake, are all good reasons to expect the City of Winnipeg to finally get going on upgrading our sewage-treatment systems.
Other cities across the Prairies, including Calgary, Edmonton, Regina and, here in Manitoba, Portage la Prairie, are moving much faster than Winnipeg to improve their sewage-treatment processes. It’s not rocket science. Good technologies exist and we need to ensure Winnipeg gets moving on upgrades.
If the health of Lake Winnipeg is one of the things that matters to you, you may want to ask your mayoral candidate what they will do to ensure that Winnipeg becomes part of the Lake Winnipeg solution rather than continuing as a huge part of the problem.

Printed in the Winnipeg Free Press, Sept. 10, 2014

 

Posted by: Vicki Burns | September 9, 2014

Blue-Green Algae News Around the World

I’m always interested in learning what is happening regarding blue-green algae blooms in other parts of the world. It is a growing concern in many areas and I think we may be able to learn about effective interventions from others who have experienced similar challenges.

Blue-green algae at Pine Dock on Lake Winnipeg, photo courtesy of EICD

Blue-green algae at Pine Dock on Lake Winnipeg, photo courtesy of EICD

I was encouraged to see a new Facebook page that just started recently, https://www.facebook.com/toxicbluegreenalgae/timeline which is featuring news items from many different locales, including USA, Australia, Great Britain. It is easy to get a snapshot from this page of the extent of the concerns. One of the most striking is the reference to the hazards of bioaccumulation of the toxin, BMAA, which is now thought to be one of the contributors to motor neuron disease, ALS. I have not been able to ascertain whether BMAA has been found to be present in any of the blue-green algae blooms in Manitoba or elsewhere in Canada. It may be that no one is testing for that yet . I will make enquiries and report any findings.

So if you are interested in learning more about the world wide experience with blue-green algae blooms check out the Toxic Blue Green Algae Awareness page on Facebook.

Safe Drinking Water - Essential of Life

Safe Drinking Water – Essential of Life

The proliferation of blue-green algae on Lake Erie has resulted in a recent state of emergency on Lake Erie due to the toxins in drinking water in Toledo Ohio. This has garnered a lot of attention in Manitoba over the past few days. Is this something we should be paying attention to here since blue-green algae is evident in several of our Manitoba lakes? The answer is YES, absolutely.

The Lake Erie situation should be a red flag to all of us that we need to do a much better job of caring for our freshwater supplies, starting with greatly limiting the amount of phosphorus we allow to flow into our lakes from our municipal sewage treatment plants and from agricultural run-off. Phosphorus is the main ingredient in the growth of blue-green algae. Phosphorus comes primarily from human sewage, animal waste, fertilizers and other run-off from the land.
This summer in Manitoba we have had another water-related crisis in the flooding that has occurred along the Assiniboine River basin. Many people don’t realize that water quality and blue-green algae problems in our lakes are inextricably intertwined with the flooding problem. The flooding increases the growth of blue-green algae because it transports even more phosphorus off the land into the waters. Many people are unaware that one of the solutions to decrease the flooding is also one of the solutions to decrease the growth of the algae blooms.
The immediate well-publicized plan related to flooding calls for expansion of the outlet of excessive water from Lake Manitoba and Lake St. Martin. Granted, this is one part of the solution, with billions of dollars and years of construction ahead of it. But it is not the whole answer. If we don’t pay attention to rehabilitating our land upstream of the Portage diversion by undertaking major wetland restoration we will continue to see impacts of water flowing off our lands creating hardship for farmers and communities in its path and carrying huge loads of phosphorus and other pollutants into Lake Manitoba, which is beginning to suffer similar problems with blue-green algae as Lake Winnipeg. The move to expand the outlets from Lake Manitoba and Lake St. Martin will alleviate some of the flooding problems related to high water levels but they will do nothing to address the challenges of blue-green algae blooms in Lake Manitoba and Lake Winnipeg. Reports of the fish kill that occurred on Lake Manitoba last year is an ominous sign that the lake is suffering. We need to be cutting down the amount of phosphorus getting into the lake. Rehabilitation of the landscapes before water hits Lake Manitoba needs to be a major part of the solutions.
Other flood-ravaged areas in North America have begun this rehabilitation process by starting the restoration of wetlands that have been drained over the past 50 years. The best example is in Louisiana where Hurricane Katrina caused such massive devastation in 2005. Prior to Katrina, scientists had been warning of the urgency to consider restoring wetlands along the Louisiana coast but serious investment was not committed until after Katrina wreaked her massive havoc. Although there was much discussion about raising the levees to give more protection, there has been widespread acceptance that they alone cannot do the job. The restoration of lost coastal wetlands with their tremendous ability to slow water down and then release it slowly decreasing the peak flow of water, is seen as a big part of the answer to long term protection to New Orleans and other Louisiana communities. The point is, the use of green infrastructure of restored wetlands, in combination with levee work, IS the solution.
In Manitoba, we are experiencing significant costs in human suffering, environmental damage and financial burdens. Add to this the possibility of drinking water contamination and it becomes clear, it’s time for us to get serious about planning, budgeting for and implementing rehabilitation of our landscapes to restore the water- holding, sponge-like capacity of the land and to heal the kidney-like filtering of phosphorus and nitrogen that wetlands offer.
Cutting down the amount of phosphorus that is in our lakes is absolutely paramount to protecting the water quality. Restoring our wetlands will cost significant dollars both in payment to landowners and in the planning and implementation of such work but if we don’t embark on this approach, the costs of crisis management will continue to add up. At the end of the day, it is Manitobans that suffer and Manitobans that pay. I would much prefer to see a chunk of my taxes going towards a long-term solution that will decrease the suffering of those who live in the flood zones while helping our lakes to return to a healthier state. It will require a commitment to long-term vision, a serious collaboration with Saskatchewan decision-makers and support from all taxpayers.
This article was printed in the Winnipeg Free Press, August 7, 2014

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.

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