Image of blue-green algae that looks like a can of paint has been spread on the water alongside a dock with fishing boats .
Blue-green algae at Pine Dock on Lake Winnipeg, photo courtesy of EICD

I was shocked to see this news headline recently and very dismayed when I read the actual story about it. Researchers in Massachusetts conducted a study around a freshwater pond on Nantucket Island and determined that a neurotoxin, anatoxin-a coined ATX, was being released into the air from a blue-green algae bloom on the pond. The research was published in a peer reviewed journal, Lake and Reservoir Management.
ATX, which has been called Very Fast Death Factor, causes a range of symptoms at acute doses, including respiratory paralysis, muscular twitching and loss of coordination. There have been cases of dogs, livestock and waterfowl dying after drinking infected water.
I’ve been writing about blue-green algae, particularly in Lake Winnipeg, for 11 years now and each year the news about algal toxins seems to become more alarming. And yet, in Manitoba where I live there has been little concrete action to actually decrease the source of the problem, the excess phosphorus and nitrogen that are feeding the algae. There is no doubt that the occurrence of toxic algal blooms is causing concerns the world over so what is happening in my home community is not unusual. But when I see headlines like what you see above I am frustrated and saddened that we are allowing this kind of destruction to our precious lifeblood, water.
To my knowledge there is no research or data collection going on here near the shores of Lake Winnipeg and other Prairie lakes to determine if there are airborne neurotoxins like ATX. I believe in the precautionary principle which would support the idea that if airborne toxins are occurring in other parts of North America, shouldn’t we consider the possibility that they may be occurring here as well near areas with large blue-green algae blooms? My hope is that we can persuade government and other important stakeholders to seriously begin to change the practices that are contributing to the occurrence of toxic algae.

Posted by: Vicki Burns | February 26, 2021

Nutrient Targets for Lake Winnipeg? A Good Idea or Not?

The Manitoba government recently opened a consultation on proposed nutrient targets for concentrations of phosphorus and nitrogen getting into Lake Winnipeg.The following are my comments on the proposed regulations. The most important points are that targets are good but must be reported on annually and must include enforcement penalties where necessary. Real change is only going to occur with political will to back it up.

Whitecaps on Grand Beach
Grand Beach 2014

The proposed nutrient targets for Lake Winnipeg are an important step in addressing the eutrophication challenges which have overwhelmed the lake for more than 2 decades now. Establishing targets can be a very useful tool in promoting action to decrease the phosphorus and nitrogen loads to the lake if they are accompanied by the political will to fuel real change.
The targets can be a good metric to measure annual change against. The nutrient loads to the lake should be made public on an annual basis and should be broken out to specific areas. For real change to occur there must be attention to areas on the landscape that are sources of phosphorus and nitrogen. If increases or decreases occur, taking into account the hydrology of that year, a closer examination of what is happening on the landscape can offer important information about nutrient losses. Decreasing nutrient inputs from non-point sources on the landscape is a significant challenge but since this is a measurable problem, it is possible to diagnose where the nutrients are coming from and then, target remedial action to those areas.
Hog Watch Manitoba has proposed that comprehensive data collection should be implemented to test water samples from ditches, creeks and streams running alongside manure spread fields, in order to ascertain the concentration of phosphorus and nitrogen that is escaping from the soil. On average the number of pigs per farm in Manitoba is 5536 more than double Quebec’s average, even though Quebec produces the most pigs per year in Canada( Canadian Pork Council Statistics). This is significant because it has implications for the amount of manure to be spread in relative proximity to the farm. The greater the number of pigs, the greater the amount of manure to be disposed of.
The blue-green algae (cyanobacteria) that are causing concerns are both a nuisance and a significant threat to human and animal health. In recent years there has been more acknowledgement from the scientific community of toxins that are present in some algal blooms including BMAA and microcystin, to name a couple. Microcystin is produced by microcystis which is not a nitrogen fixer, and lends weight to the need to target nitrogen as well as phosphorus. In Manitoba we have not yet paid as much attention to the human health effects from algal toxins as is being done in other jurisdictions, Florida for example. However, the health impacts will increase if we do not take action now.
Regarding the target levels for phosphorus and nitrogen, the suggested targets for nitrogen in the north basin of the lake, 0.75mg/L, seem too high. Each year there are already very extensive algal blooms in the north basin while the nitrogen concentration has averaged less than the suggested target since 2012. Whether the suggested target levels for both nutrients are low enough is questionable but the targets can be changed if the algal blooms continue to be significant even with lower concentrations of nutrients entering the lake each year.
In conclusion, the establishment of targets for nutrient concentrations in Lake Winnipeg is an important, necessary step towards returning the lake to a healthier state but only if there is real political will to institute the changes in human actions that will be required. This means transparency and accountability every year from agricultural operations, industries and municipal sewage plants with appropriate penalties where required.

Brenda Vielhaber's pic of VB Aug 2017

Blue-green algae Lake Winnipeg , photo B.Vielhaber

Blue-green algae and red tide have been plaguing parts of Florida for the past few summers. Now healthcare providers have been given a special code to use when recording a patient’s illness if they think it has been caused by toxins present in some blue-green algae and red tide. Here in Manitoba we are experiencing very bad blue-green algae in parts of Lake Winnipeg as well as several other lakes around the province but there is no reporting of illnesses related to these blooms.
In Florida there is hope that documenting the number of humans experiencing health problems related to the algae and red tide will elevate the urgency of taking measures to decrease the problem. We need to take similar measures here in Manitoba because the problem seems to be growing. Although the Manitoba government does test for toxins present in blooms that are observed, there is no data collection of any human illnesses resulting from exposure to the blooms.
The health effects of short term exposure to blue-green algae are quite well known. Microcystin, the most common toxin present, can cause nausea and vomiting, rashes and hay fever type symptoms as well as liver damage. There is less know about chronic long term exposure but there is more discussion now about BMAA, a toxin in some blue-green algae, being linked to motor neuron diseases like ALS, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. There is documentation in Florida that toxins from blue-green algae can be airborne and people living near waterways affected by the algae can become ill from just breathing in the air.
There is no denying it – blue-green algae can have very serious impacts on human health. It’s time we publicly acknowledged this and begin to measure the extent of the problem by keeping statistics on illnesses triggered by exposure to the toxins sometimes present.

The Manitoba government is proposing a new regulation that will actually make it easier to drain wetlands and does not adhere to their stated principle of “no net loss of wetland benefits”. It seems the main point of the proposed regulation is to decrease red tape around wetland drainage but it does nothing to ensure that we’re not losing more wetland benefits and doesn’t even begin to address the idea of restoring wetlands. Given all thatGrand Beach wetlands we know now about how wetlands help to filter excess nutrients that feed blue-green algae out of our lakes and how they act as sponges to decrease flow during floods and hold water during droughts, we need to be working to increase our wetland capacity. I have attached the comments I sent on this consultation below. Everyone is welcome to send comments to 

Attention: Drainage Consultation
Manitoba Sustainable Development
Box 16 – 200 Saulteaux Cres
Winnipeg, MB
R3J 3W3

I am writing in response to the request for input on the proposed Water Rights Regulation.
I wholly support the Manitoba government’s commitment to protecting Manitoba’s wetlands by adopting the guiding principle of no net loss of wetland benefits. Given our understanding of the role that wetlands play in filtering nutrients out of water before it enters our lakes as well as the function they provide of holding back water during flood events, the no net loss of wetland benefits is a very wise and practical value.
However, as it is currently written the proposed regulation does not adhere to the no net loss principle and actually appears to increase the risk of wetland loss.
I support the following changes to the proposed regulation:
• A province-wide drainage moratorium on all Class 3, 4 and 5 wetlands to protect the benefits they provide and reduce the costs of flood, drought and water-quality deterioration;
• The removal of permanent legal protection of existing wetlands as a compensation option, as this will result in a net loss of wetland benefits;
• A comprehensive provincial wetland inventory (including the publication of wetland-classification maps) prior to the launch of the drainage regulation process; and
• A robust auditing program of both registered and licensed drainage projects, and evidence-based evaluation of ecological outcomes achieved.

John Pomeroy’s study “The Impact of Wetland Drainage on the Hydrology of a Northern Prairie Watershed” is very helpful in understanding the tremendous importance not only of preserving existing wetlands but also the need to reconstruct wetlands to build up the natural benefits they provide. “Our results show a direct link between wetland drainage and peak streamflows during a flood,” said John Pomeroy, director of the Centre for Hydrology. “By restricting wetland drainage in the future, or restoring wetlands, we could reduce infrastructure costs from floods, such as washed-out roads and flooded communities.”
Given the tremendous damage including physical, emotional and financial wreaked by flood events in the past decade alone, it would seem very prudent to work to decrease similar consequences in future floods, which we know will occur. The proposed regulation does nothing to improve the current situation with wetlands and could well increase damages associated with floods, droughts and toxic algae in our lakes.
In conclusion, I urge the government to alter the proposed regulation to include the suggested changes listed above.

Yours truly,

Vicki Burns
Director , Save Lake Winnipeg Project

Posted by: Vicki Burns | September 24, 2018

Industrialized Agriculture, Toxic Blue-Green Algae and Lake Winnipeg

I have been writing a blog about Lake Winnipeg and blue-green algae since 2010 but many others, including renowned scientists, have been issuing reports and research papers for years. I will highlight some of that research in subsequent paragraphs but the main point I am trying to make is that in spite of well-respected and accepted science, we are continuing to allow expansion of practices that we know will worsen our problem with often toxic blue-green algae in our lakes.

fishshoreline Gimli EICD

Gimli, Manitoba September 2017

In 2011 the Manitoba government announced that they were establishing a goal of reducing the phosphorus in the south basin of Lake Winnipeg by 50%. This decision was based on research by Peter Leavitt et al “Sudden ecosystem state change in Lake Winnipeg, Canada, caused by eutrophication arising from crop and livestock production during the 20th century”. In this paper the researchers document the rapid increase in livestock production in Manitoba (from 2 million to 8 million pigs in the 1990s) and the subsequent increase in amount of phosphorus and nitrogen getting into Lake Winnipeg.

pigs in large barn
In 2012 “The rapid eutrophication of Lake Winnipeg: Greening under global change”, Schindler, McCullough &Hecky, Journal of Great Lakes Research , documents the almost doubling in size of algal blooms in Lake Winnipeg since the 1990’s and attributes that to two factors; “rapidly increased livestock production and use of synthetic fertilizer in the Red River Valley, with smaller contributions of phosphorus from the city of Winnipeg and other human development in the Red and Winnipeg river basins. The second factor is the increased frequency and intensity of spring floods in the Red River watershed in recent years, which have greatly enhanced the transfer of phosphorus from the landscape to the lake, as well as slower increases in nitrogen”.
Jump forward to 2018 and we see that our current provincial government is encouraging the expansion of the industrial hog industry in Manitoba by loosening regulations required to build or expand existing hog operations. Encouraging the development of organic or small scale hog farms would be a sustainable way to create a long term hog industry in our province that would decrease threats to our lakes. But to open the doors to more industrial operations where thousands of pigs are held under one roof and where their liquid manure needs to be disposed of on spread fields, potentially contributing more phosphorus and nitrogen in run-off, is simply wrong.
We have made virtually no progress towards the goal of cutting the amount of phosphorus in the south basin of Lake Winnipeg since 2011 and it’s not likely that we will make progress as long as we continue to allow policy decisions that fly in the face of what science is telling us.


Lake Winnipeg

Blue-green algae(cyanobacteria) is a growing threat in many areas around North America and this summer it seems to be getting an early start, likely due to hot temperatures. I receive news of blue-green algae every day via a Google Alert and recently these headlines popped up: “Toxic blue-green algae blooms’ long-term health effects need study, hospital CEO says” from Florida, where there is growing recognition of the threat that algal toxins pose to human health. “Digging Deeper: The lasting impact of blue-green algae” is an article from Madison, Wisconsin in which they reference the fact that Madison area beaches were closed due to algal threats for 103 days last year. They are studying the economic impacts of lost tourism as one of the lasting effects of the algae.
I’m highlighting these articles in hopes of stimulating more attention to the challenges we face with blue-green algae in Lake Winnipeg and other southern Manitoba lakes. It’s not just attention we need but significant action to alter some practices that are contributing to the problem. Specifically we need to upgrade sewage treatment starting in Winnipeg to decrease the phosphorus and nitrogen that are in our wastewater effluent when it is released into the Red River. Then we can move further afield to sewage treatment everywhere in Manitoba. Next we need to measure how much phosphorus and nitrogen is running off agricultural lands and alter industrial agricultural practices to decrease this threat.
The most important thing to note is that we do not need to treat this as a hopeless situation. Human beings have tremendous ability and capacity to change if situations become urgent enough. In regards to blue-green algae (some of which is dangerously toxic) what we are lacking now is the will to make those changes. Our lakes are resilient and they will rebound to healthier states if we can do our part to cut down on the pollutants we’re allowing to flow into them. Swimmable, fishable and drinkable are the adjectives I hope we’ll see applied to our Manitoba lakes in the near future.

Posted by: Vicki Burns | December 3, 2017

BMAA Neurotoxin in Lake Winnipeg; Should We Be Concerned?

Over the past couple of years I have written about the possibility that BMAA , a neurotoxin found in some blue-green algae blooms, may be present in Manitoba lakes that experience the blooms. We now know that it is definitely present in Lake Winnipeg, (Eva Pip et al; Susan Murch et al). However what we don’t know is whether it is bioaccumulating in fish from Lake Winnipeg.


fishshoreline Gimli EICD.jpg

Blue-green algae at Gimli on Lake Winnipeg 2017 photo credit EICD

BMAA has been associated with occurrences of neurodegenerative diseases like ALS, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, although there has been much discussion amongst medical and public health professionals about whether there really is a causal link. In 2016 I wrote to Canada’s Minister of Health to ask that that she institute testing of our lake waters to determine if there was BMAA present. In November of 2016 I received a response from her department in which they asserted that current research indicated there was no clear, direct link between exposure to BMAA in cyanobacterial blooms and neurological effects. What this does not address is whether the frequent consumption of fish that swim in cynobacterial blooms will have a neurological effect.
At the same time as Susan Murch’s research came to public attention, this article was also published which focuses on the increasing strength of association between occurrence of ALS and chronic exposure to cyanobacterial blooms. Walter Bradley, chairman emeritus of the University of Miami’s School of Medicine’s Neurology Department , says “The evidence is gradually increasing that the poisons resulting from cyanobacteria blooms can produce neurological damage,” He is concerned that Florida’s Health Dept. should be alerting the public to the potential dangers. “ The way the Florida Department of Health has gone about the more chronic effects of these toxins is really not appropriate,” Bradley said, “because they say (not to) believe what people are saying about BMAA and the toxins from cyanobacteria being responsible for ALS or other neurodegenerations.”
If a highly respected professional, Dr. Walter Bradley, from the Miami School of Medicine is now adding his voice to several others calling for more research into this issue, I think we in Manitoba who live near many lakes that suffer extensive cyanobacterial blooms, should be expecting more from our Health Departments, at minimum research to determine the degree of bioaccumulation in fish. I will be writing to the appropriate officials asking for this and will let you know the response once it is received.



The following is the presentation I gave to the Standing Committee of the Manitoba Legislature on Oct.24, 2017.

Bill 24,The Red Tape Reduction and Government Efficiency Act,2017

I will focus my comments on the section of this bill that refers to the Environment Act, specifically repealing sections 40.1 and 40.2 of that act. These sections of the Environment Act relate to the construction and modification of hog barns as well as the spreading of manure in the winter.
My concern about these proposed changes include many issues but for today’s presentation I will focus solely on environmental threats to water.
The threat to waters from hog manure is related to the run-off of phosphorus and nitrogen from manure that has been spread on fields. The run off can bring excess nutrients that have not been taken up by the crop to nearby ditches, creeks, streams and rivers and ultimately into our lakes. The phosphorus and nitrogen feed the dangerous blue-green algae which is now the dominant species of algae in Lake Winnipeg. The chart below demonstrates the shift from blue-green algae accounting for approximately 25% of the species in the lake back in 1969 to 2003 when blue-green algae has become the dominant species accounting for approximately 90%.
Alage composition changes
The problem of blue-green algae blooms, some of which contain toxins, is impacting several Manitoba lakes, including but not limited to Pelican Lake, Killarney Lake, Rock Lake and Lake Winnipeg. Potential toxins in the blooms include hepatotoxins (affecting the liver) neurotoxins (affecting the nervous system) as well as digestive tract illnesses and skin rashes.
Before I go any further about the concern of hog manure being part of the problem of blue-green algae in our lakes, I want to stress that human sewage, most notably the city of Winnipeg’s inadequate sewage treatment, is absolutely one of the most significant sources of phosphorus to Lake Winnipeg. However, after acknowledging that, I think we must address head on the concern about the degree to which hog manure is part of the problem. There has been a dispute about this issue for the past 15 years or more and its time to get that dispute resolved.
The good news is, it is possible for us to get a scientific, evidence based resolution to this question. Currently the rationale for the hog industry contributing 1 or 2 % of the phosphorus is based on theoretical calculations about how much manure can be applied safely to crop land and how much of the phosphorus will be taken up by the crops. This is based on calculations about acres of land available for spreading of manure, how much manure is spread on those fields and the amount of phosphorus expected to be used by the particular crop. It is based on assumptions that the manure will be spread as the rules dictate and that the crops will use up the amount of phosphorus without any of it running off during rain storms, floods or spring snow melt. It is not based on actual measurements of phosphorus in ditches, creeks and streams that run alongside the spread fields. Here is where actual science can be a great help because fortunately this is a measurable problem. We can take samples of water in many of the waterways, ditches, etc. that run by the spread fields, measure the amount of phosphorus in those samples at various times of the year and calculate the overall amount of phosphorus, taking into account, the flow rate of that waterway. It is important to capture samples during snowmelt and major rain storms as we know those times are when the greatest run-off occurs.
The Lake Winnipeg Foundation through their Community Based Monitoring program has already started some of this work in a few different areas of the province. Their full report can be found online . The report shows where one of the “hot spots” for phosphorus run-off appears, specifically the Manning Canal area that flows through very intensive agricultural development as well as near the community of Steinbach.
We now have the beginnings of an accurate scientific analysis of where some of the phosphorus is coming from. Why not expand that knowledge base so that we can be certain of whether the current industrial manner of hog production is or is not a significant contributor to the excess phosphorus getting into our lakes? Should we not base any legislative or regulatory changes on what evidence based science is telling us rather than assumptions from theoretical analysis?
In conclusion I want to point out that we now have the opportunity to point Manitoba’s hog industry in a direction that is environmentally, ethically and economically sustainable rather than allow the business as usual style to continue. We know that most of the current barns will need renovations or even reconstruction due to the requirement to replace intensive confinement gestation stall systems with open housing by 2024 at the latest. Since there will need to be major investments made across the board why not mandate new systems that include straw based housing for the pigs, eliminating the need for the liquid manure systems that are causing a lot of concerns. The straw based housing would satisfy much of the animal welfare concerns at the same time as diminishing the environmental threats. The University of Manitoba, National Centre for Livestock and the Environment, could be very helpful in leading such a change.
We have a great opportunity now to do things right, to help hog producers have a much more secure future, so I hope you as our elected leaders will choose long term sustainability over short term economics.
Respectfully submitted by,

Vicki Burns
Winnipeg, MB R3M 3L4

References on the Issue of Industrial Agriculture and Its Impact on the Environment

• Livestock’s Long Shadow – Environmental Issues and Options 2007– Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations ( FAO) and Livestock Environment and Development( LEAD) supported by the World Bank, the EU, the US Agency for International Development and the International Fund for Agricultural Development.

The livestock sector emerges as one of the top two or three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global. The findings of this report suggest that it should be a major policy focus when dealing with problems of land degradation, climate change and air pollution, water.

• The Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production 2008

A Project of the Pew Charitable Trusts and John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health
Excerpt from the Executive Summary:
While increasing the speed of production, the intensive confinement production system creates a number of problems. These include contributing to the increase in the pool of antibiotic-resistant bacteria because of the overuse of antibiotics; air quality problems; the contamination of rivers, streams, and coastal waters with concentrated animal waste; animal welfare problems, mainly as a result of the extremely close quarters in which the animals are housed; The current industrial farm animal production (IFAP) system often poses unacceptable risks to public health, the environment and the welfare of the animals themselves. The negative effects of the IFAP system are too great and the scientific evidence is too strong to ignore. Significant changes must be implemented and must start now.”

• IAASTD – International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge Science and Technology for Development 2008– compiled by scientists from 61 countries

Business as usual is not an option!”

• Eating Our Future – The Environmental Impact of Industrial Animal Agriculture 2008 – author, Dr. Michael C. Appleby for the World Society for the Protection of Animals
For livestock production to have reduced impact on climate change and to be sustainable in other respects it must be biologically based, socially just and humane. Animal welfare must be included in all future discussions on agriculture and climate change.”

Posted by: Vicki Burns | August 2, 2017

Blue-Green Algae Fouling Lake Winnipeg Beaches Again 2017

The hot summer weather in Manitoba has brought along another reminder that all is not well in our great Lake Winnipeg, the 10th largest freshwater lake in the world. Blue-green algae blooms have appeared at Victoria Beach on the east side of the lake, as well as at several other lakes in Manitoba. Algae advisory signs have been posted at Killarney Lake, Pelican Lake, Shoal Lake and Rivers Reservoir.

These blue-green algae blooms may contain toxins that are damaging to human health and can be lethal to animals including dogs and livestock. If there is a bloom present people are advised to keep animals out of the water and not to use it as a source of drinking water.
The problems of toxic blue-green algae are caused by too much phosphorus and nitrogen getting into our lakes via streams and rivers that flow into the lakes. Those nutrients (phosphorus and nitrogen) are present in human sewage, animal manure and chemical fertilizers. Human sewage is discharged into streams that end up in the lake. Even though the sewage is treated before its released much of it is not treated enough to reduce the amount of phosphorus and nitrogen adequately. Animal manure is often spread on fields as fertilizers and if all the phosphorus and nitrogen is not taken up by whatever crop is growing, the excess becomes available to run off during big rains or during snowmelt.
In Manitoba we have the biggest hog industry of any province in Canada, producing 8 to 9 million pigs per year. Our current provincial government is trying to encourage the expansion of the hog industry by loosening regulations around manure disposal. This move comes at a time when we know our lakes are already suffering from too much phosphorus and nitrogen so there is growing opposition to it.
I am part of a group called Hog Watch Manitoba and we are trying to encourage our government and hog producers to move away from raising pigs in this industrial style that threatens water quality to an alternative model that is much more sustainable. We are planning a public forum in September to provide more information about what the problem is and how we can fix it. Stay tuned for more details on the forum.

pigs in large barn

Hog Watch Manitoba, a group formed in 1999 to monitor the hog industry in the province, is being reconvened due to public concerns. A steering committee  has met in Portage La Prairie to make plans for the group’s current work. Many people have expressed alarm at plans by the Pallister government to lift the moratorium on new hog barns, imposed by the previous NDP government in 2006. They fear the Premier’s move to “reduce red tape” will lead to more pollution, threatening our waterways and even human health.
• Will government will do away with rules preventing the spreading of manure on fields in the winter? Winter spreading has been shown to result in more waste escaping into surface water. In 2007, the Clean Environment Commission found that hog wastes spread on fields as a nutrient, “constitute the most serious environmental sustainability issues facing the industry.”
• Hog Watch wants the government to explain what has changed since 2007 that would justify a relaxation of regulations now.
• Hog Watch will ask for meetings with cabinet ministers most directly involved with the proposed changes and seek assurances that rules protecting the public and the environment will be preserved.

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