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.

Posted by: Vicki Burns | February 12, 2014

Severe Flooding in Britain Raises Familiar Questions

The terrible flooding that has hit southwest England in the last few days caught my attention, first because we have visited there just a few months ago and secondly because some of the questions raised are similar to what we face here in Manitoba. We visited Cornwall in October 2013 and were so impressed with the beauty of the terrain and the charm of the old seaside towns. It’s amazing to realize that the railway we traveled to get from London to Cornwall has been cut off due to damage from flooding.

Flooding in Windsor 2014

Flooding in Windsor 2014

High tides, strong winds and the rainiest season in 248 years have combined to create terrible flooding in parts of Britain. According to a report from the chief scientist 10 years ago, Sir David King, “Hard choices need to be taken – we must either invest more in sustainable approaches to flood and coastal management or learn to live with increased flooding.” At that time, scientists were predicting that the kind of flooding we’re seeing today would be occurring in the 2030’s due to climate change but apparently it’s happening much more quickly.

What really twigged my interest in this was the idea, presented in the Guardian article,that we could do something to decrease the overall severity of flooding with “natural flood management, based on working with natural processes to increase infiltration, detain water within headwater catchments and restore meanders and large wood in rivers (even perhaps reintroducing beavers to manage that wood) can help”. These concepts are very similar to what we have been promoting here in terms of “keeping water on the land” using wetlands and other constructed water retention areas. As well, in Britain they are discussing the need to replace Victorian era combined sewer systems that are subject to overflow in these heavy rain events, a problem that is occurring all too often here in Winnipeg and other Canadian cities.

We are faced with very similar challenges and some solutions can also be similar but for now, I hope our British friends do not suffer greatly from further flooding.

Sailboards on Lake Winnipeg

Sailboards on Lake Winnipeg

It’s been one year since the Global Nature Fund chose Lake Winnipeg as the Threatened Lake of 2013 worldwide due to the extensive blue-green algae blooms that are fouling the lake every year and over 35 years since scientists have been ringing alarm bells . Although Lake Winnipeg is only one of many lakes around the world suffering from this growing threat, it is the 10th largest lake in the world and Canada’s 6th Great Lake so it draws international attention.

“If there has been any progress in cutting the amount of phosphorus that is getting into the lake, we don’t know about it” says Vicki Burns, spokesperson for the Save Lake Winnipeg Project. “We have not seen any data on the annual amounts of phosphorus going into the lake for 7 years, even though government staff is collecting the data every year. That is simply too long”.

Some blue-green algae blooms contain toxins that are very dangerous to both animals and humans. Over the past year, there has been new research from Oregon State University finding that the toxicity in blue-green algae blooms is increasing and from Australia linking a toxin found in some blue-green algae, BMAA, to motor neuron disease such as ALS, Alzheimers and Parkinsons.

“The threats associated with blue-green algae blooms are growing” says Vicki Burns. “We need action now to stop this unhealthy trend. Another year has passed since the Threatened Lake Designation and we still cannot measure any progress.”

When questioned on progress made since the Global Nature Fund designation, Living Lakes Canada advisor Bob Sandford said: “I am deeply concerned about two matters in particular. First, I don’t think the average Manitoban has any idea of how serious this problem has become and how much it may impact the prosperity of the province and region in the future. Second, Manitobans have yet to realize that governments can’t solve a problem of this magnitude on their own. While the will clearly appears to exist to organize around solutions, critical players remain absent from the table resulting in efforts remaining largely atomized for want of broader commitment and adequate funding and support. But there is progress.”

To start, the Save Lake Winnipeg Project is calling for a commitment from all 3 levels of government to invest in upgraded sewage treatment for all Manitoba sources within the next 10 years; and a commitment to release annual data about the amount of phosphorus entering the lake.

Posted by: Vicki Burns | January 16, 2014

Algae Warnings Spoiling Some Florida Vacations

I was sent this article about bad algal blooms along the southwest coast of Florida, in particular Fort Myers Beach. Its an area that I have some personal connection with as members of my family have been enjoying wintering near there for several decades. I had personal experience with some red tide blooms in the fall of 2012 while visiting and after looking into it, realized that the causes of blue-green algae, macroalgae ( as reported in this article) and red tide(Karenia brevis) are very similar. They’re all brought about by too much nutrient( phosphorus and nitrogen) running off our landscapes and getting into the water.

Bonita Beach, photo courtesy of Travel Tidings Florida

Bonita Beach, photo courtesy of Travel Tidings Florida

Today I received another piece of news from an area close to Fort Myers, Port Charlotte, where they are commenting on the fact that they’ve already spent $2million over the past year trying to remove thick blue-green algae from the Sunrise Waterway in Port Charlotte but they anticipate it will cost an additional $1million to complete the work. There is no mention of how they plan to stop the continual growth of the algae that is fed by too much phosphorus and nitrogen, coming from sewage, fertilizers, animal waste and run-off from the land.
The costs of not intercepting the excess nutrients of phosphorus and nitrogen at source, are building in so many areas around North America. I don’t often see reports about blue-green algae blooms in some of the European countries that have invested heavily in upgrading their sewage treatment and in managing their animal manure in very careful ways.  I hope to learn more about that in the near future and share what I’ve learned. There is so much more we could be doing in this part of the world and so many good reasons to get going on it sooner rather than later.

Over the past 3 years I have written several blog posts about wetland drainage and how it is contributing to a number of water related challenges in Manitoba. However, I’ve come to believe that its still a subject that many people don’t know much about so when I receive a great article like this one, “I Didn’t Know Wetlands Did That!” by Jim Ringelman, a retired scientist from Ducks Unlimited in North Dakota, I want to share it as widely as possible and encourage people to read it.

image of green vegetation arund a marshy area

Wetland Holding Water

Jim has written that 45% of the wetlands in North Dakota have been drained over the past century since this land was settled. North of the border here in Canada, our Ducks Unlimited scientists estimate that its up to 70 % that have been drained. Jim does a great job of explaining the “kidney like” function of wetlands and how we’ve lost that large percentage of the filtering capacity so that more of the phosphorus, nitrogen and other elements that we don’t want getting into our rivers and lakes, are indeed ending up there. Included in this article is a picture of a blue-green algae bloom fouling Victoria Beach on Lake Winnipeg a couple of years ago.
One of the other major services that wetlands provide to us, is their ability to act like sponges – soaking up water and releasing it slowly. There are some really impressive numbers that Jim quotes about the amount of water that could have been slowed down and held back during some of the recent spring floods. This should resonate with us because we’re experiencing so many more floods both in spring and during big storms. Flash floods have been creating havoc in many areas across the Prairies.

Blue-green algae Lake Winnipeg

Blue-green algae Lake Winnipeg

In my home province of Manitoba, we are awaiting some new regulations about the drainage of wetlands. With information like what is included in this article, it shouldn’t be too difficult for the public to understand why we can’t afford to continue with the status quo. We simply can’t bear the costs both to our wallets and to our natural landscapes when we alter nature’s ways of handling water.

Posted by: Vicki Burns | December 18, 2013

Blue-Green Algae – Becoming a Drinking Water Threat?

Although the main focus of my work is Lake Winnipeg and other Manitoba lakes, I keep my eyes open for news about blue-green algae in other jurisdictions. It seems logical to me that repercussions of blue-green algae blooms in other areas may also occur in Manitoba, if not now at some future point. This news item today caught my attention because if we lose access to our safe drinking water supplies, that becomes a monumental problem.
The city of Toledo and other communities around parts of Lake Erie are concerned that increasing toxicity in the blue-green algae blooms may become serious threats to their drinking water. According to Kelly Frey, the Ottawa County sanitary engineer ““No one has expertise on treating this stuff,” Frey said. “This whole experience is something new. It puts us on edge every day.”

Drinking Water

Drinking Water

Lake Erie is often referred to in discussions about Lake Winnipeg because 35 years ago it was in very unhealthy state due to huge algae blooms. At that point communities around the lake invested significantly in cleaning up point sources of the problem phosphorus (primarily sewage treatment) and the lake rebounded to a much healthier state. However the algae blooms have now appeared again, threatening tourism, fishing, and even drinking water supplies. The attention now is on the non-point sources of phosphorus, primarily agriculture, because they have already minimized the contributions from sewage.
We are still lagging behind in Manitoba, both on the point sources of phosphorus and the non-point sources. I hope that this news from Lake Erie helps to light a fire under us here in Manitoba. There is so much more we could be doing to decrease the threats of blue-green algae in our lakes but it will require significant investments. The costs of not acting now will be so much greater in future decades. Let’s be wise with our actions and our money.

A couple of weeks ago I attended a workshop on Stormwater Management Solutions put on by the Water Caucus of the Manitoba Eco-Network. There were several very interesting speakers including the first, Heather Mack, who was representing the Insurance Bureau of Canada and who made the point that insurance claims related to water damage from the intense storms we’re getting, are rising dramatically. The insurance industry is trying to get municipal officials across the country to pay more serious attention to where the areas of highest risk are. The recent unprecedented flooding in and around Calgary and the flash flood in Toronto this summer, are examples of what we are likely to see more of in the future.

For those of us working on freshwater lake issues, the most dominant one now, being the proliferation of blue-green algae blooms, every extreme storm adds to the possibility of greater algal blooms because of the phosphorus being run off the land in the heavy rain. So anything we can do to slow the run-off and help some of that stormwater to penetrate into the soil, is good news for our lakes. Sharyn Inward, Program Manager for RAIN of Green Communities Canada presented some very practical advice for how to do that in our urban centres. From proper rain barrel management (empty them after big storms in order to get ready for the next one) to creating rain gardens, having permeable parking surfaces, and dog waste composters, these are all ideas that homeowners can implement.

Rain Garden Example - photo from Cuyahoga Soil and Water Conservation District

Rain Garden Example – photo from Cuyahoga Soil and Water Conservation District

Beyond that our municipal governments can adopt policies and practices that shift from stormwater to rainwater management. Laura Brandes of the Polis Project has written a great commentary on the steps the city of Victoria is taking in this direction.  She says there are 3 principles that need to be adopted: 1. Reducing the amount of impermeable surfaces by changing the way we build and retrofit our communities. 2. Using rain as a resource and as a viable decentralized source of water for non-potable needs. 3. Integrating decision-making across and within jurisdictions on a watershed scale.

A few years ago when I was working at the Winnipeg Humane Society and helping to design the new shelter, we decided to work on getting LEED certification for the building. We incorporated 2 features that many people didn’t understand. The first was to have a gravel parking lot so that it was permeable and the second was to collect rainwater to be used for flushing the toilets. I’m glad to see that these ideas, aimed at re-thinking our approach to stormwater, are gaining more attention. There are so many good reasons to do so, not the least of which is the health of our Prairie lakes.

Posted by: Vicki Burns | November 1, 2013

Stakes Are Rising in Blue-Green Algae Threats

In the past week there have been two news items about research related to toxins in some blue-green algae blooms. Both items seemed to raise the stakes on the potential threats associated with growing algal blooms in Manitoba and around the world.
The first news item came from researchers at Oregon State University and the University of North Carolina. Essentially they were describing the increasing toxicity of some algal blooms and they predicted that the strains of blue-green algae(cyanobacteria) that contain toxins will become more prevalent in comparison to the strains that do not contain toxins. Given that these toxins can have serious negative impacts on liver function and are now associated with motor neuron disease, like ALS, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, this is very important and alarming news.
The second news item that caught my attention came from researcher, Dr. Sally Everson, from Tweed Shire Council in Australia. Her research has shown that the toxins from some algal blooms can stay in the water long after the visible signs of blue-green algae have disappeared. Apparently the toxins can actually drop out of the bloom and linger in the cleaner water that is lower in the water column. This has significant ramifications for communities that draw their drinking water from lakes that experience blue-green algae blooms.

blue-green algae at Minaki, Ontario 2011 - courtesy of Todd Sellers

blue-green algae at Minaki, Ontario 2011 – courtesy of Todd Sellers

So in my estimation, the risks associated with not taking bold and decisive action now to curb the growth of blue-green algae, are increasing. We need to create a much stronger swell of support for the investments required to reducing our exposure to these threats. With each day that passes our potential costs are growing.

Blue-green algae on the shoresof Lake Winnipeg

Blue-green algae on the shoresof Lake Winnipeg

In the last few days I have seen news of a major scientific discovery in Australia which explains how exposure to blue-green algae can result in motor neuron disease, like ALS. It is important to note that likely only a small percentage of people who are exposed to the particular toxin, BMAA, in some blue-green algae will actually become ill with the disease. But it certainly caused me to pay attention and wonder if the blue-green algae in various lakes in Manitoba are being tested for the presence of BMAA.I have asked our provincial Water Stewardship Dept. and will report the response when I hear it.
The threat of blue-green algae in Manitoba lakes and right across North America is growing as evidenced by the number of alerts issued in at least 21 American States and all 10 Canadian provinces this past summer of 2013. The consequence of these alerts could be assumed to be mainly a disruption in recreational use of our freshwater lakes but it goes much deeper. There are potential issues with human and animal health; aquatic eco-system well-being; fishing industries and property values.
There seems to be a lack of urgency in implementing the measures needed to decrease the amount of phosphorus which is making its way into our streams, rivers and lakes, and ultimately fuelling the increased growth of blue-green algae. It’s frustrating to know that we do have the technologies to intercept, recover and recycle the phosphorus from one of the main point sources, human sewage. But the political will is not there yet to make the investments required. Maybe recognition of serious human health threats will spur faster action. I hope so!

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