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.

There is a growing discrepancy between research that documents the increasing problem of toxic algae blooms and the actions necessary to decrease the human contributions to this problem. I don’t think I’m alone in admitting that this is big source of frustration to me. Over the past couple of decades we’ve become accustomed to news that swimming, fishing, even breathing air near some blooms, in our lakes, is not recommended, at times, based on blue-green algae being evident. The basis of my frustration is that “it doesn’t have to be this way”.We do know many of the actions we can make to decrease phosphorus getting into our waters. Free Press article about scientists warning about nutrient reduction
The USGS (United States Geological Survey) issued a report in 2016 which has just recently come to my attention. New Science Challenges Old Assumptions about Harmful Algal Blooms reports on the first ever national assessment of toxins from harmful algal blooms. The USGS in conjunction with EPA surveyed 1161 lakes and reservoirs across the USA.
In Canada the federal government department Health Canada, produced a report in 2016, Cyanobacterial Toxins in Drinking Water, the purpose of which was to establish drinking water guideline levels. Although this report primarily discusses cyanobacterial toxins in drinking water, not lakes, there is reference to the sources of the toxins which are the lakes. In 2012, Diane Orihel et al, published a report of a study of samples from 246 bodies of water across Canada which showed the cyanobacterial toxin, microcystin, present in lakes in every province.
I am referencing these studies to point out that it is apparent that there is significant concern in both Canada and the USA about the occurrence of blue-green algae in many lakes across our continent. Although not all the algal blooms contain toxins, many do and the information about the variety of toxins and their impacts is becoming more available. What this means is that we are impacting negatively the safe, clean water that human existence is dependent upon. We need to reverse this trend as soon as possible.
However the lack of concrete action is evident in my home province of Manitoba and I suspect elsewhere. In 2011 the premier of the day, announced a goal of reducing the phosphorus in Lake Winnipeg by 50%. But here we are 6 years later and still no concrete plan with annual, measurable goals for phosphorus reduction. So it remains “all talk but no action” and that is simply not good enough for our precious lakes.

In April of 2016 I sent a letter to the Minister of Health for Canada, The Honourable Jane Philpott, asking whether Health Canada would be doing any research into the presence of BMAA, a neurotoxin found in some blue-green algae, in Canadian lakes. There is growing research documenting the possible link between exposure to BMAA and motor neuron diseases like ALS, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. I received a response to that letter a few weeks ago and excerpts are below. For full text of the letter scroll to the end of the post.BMAA link to Neurodegenerative diseases

Health Canada has, in collaboration with provinces and territories, recently completed a thorough assessment of the available scientific research on cyanobacterial toxins. This comprehensive assessment has been posted online for public consultation. Although the public consultation period has now ended, the consultation document on cyanobacterial toxins in drinking water is still available at cyanobacteria-cyanobacterie/document-eng.php.

As indicated in the GCDWQ, the current scientific research on BMAA indicates that no clear, direct links can be drawn between exposure to BMAA from cyanobacteria, and neurological effects. Further investigation is needed before a cause and effect relationship between BMAA and neurological disease can be established or discounted. The present evidence does not suggest that BMAA is a water quality hazard of human health concern; however, Health Canada will continue to monitor any developments on this topic.
John Cooper
Director, Water and Air Quality Bureau
Health Canada”

So at this point although there may be some private research going on about BMAA in Canadian waters there is nothing from our federal or provincial governments. Given the devastation caused by motor neuron diseases( ALS, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s) I think we should be taking the precautionary approach and considering BMAA a toxin to be avoided.

Health Canada

Healthy Environments and Consumer Safety Branch

Ms. Vicki Burns Director
Save Lake Winnipeg Project

Dear Ms. Burns:

Thank you for your e-mail of April 13, 2016, addressed to the Honourable Jane Philpott, Minister of Health, in which you raise the possibility of a link between the cyanobacterial toxin, 13-Methylamino-L-alanine (BMAA), and motor neuron diseases. I regret the delay in responding.

In your e-mail, you provided information regarding BMAA in blue-green algae blooms, and requested that the Minister of Health consider directing Health Canada to test blue-green algae blooms in different lakes across Canada to determine if BMAA is present. The Minister appreciates the information you have provided, and it has been shared with departmental officials for their consideration.

Health Canada is involved in many activities related to water quality, especially drinking water quality. Furthermore, when considering drinking water quality, responsibility is shared between the different levels of government. The principal responsibility of ensuring the safety of drinking water generally rests with the provinces and territories. Health Canada works with the provinces and territories to develop the Guidelines for Canadian Drinking Water Quality (GCDWQ). These guidelines are then used by each province and territory to help establish their own requirements for drinking water quality.

Health Canada has, in collaboration with provinces and territories, recently completed a thorough assessment of the available scientific research on cyanobacterial toxins. This comprehensive assessment has been posted online for public consultation.
Although the public consultation period has now ended, the consultation document on cyanobacterial toxins in drinking water is still available at cyanobacteria-cyanobacterie/document-eng.php.

As indicated in the GCDWQ, the current scientific research on BMAA indicates that no clear, direct links can be drawn between exposure to BMAA from cyanobacteria, and neurological effects. Further investigation is needed before a cause and effect relationship between BMAA and neurological disease can be established or discounted. The present evidence does not suggest that BMAA is a water quality hazard of human health concern; however, Health Canada will continue to monitor any developments on  this topic.
Health Canada has conducted the monitoring of raw and treated water samples as part of specific research projects, but it does not routinely test water bodies. Monitoring for BMAA or any other cyanobacterial toxins in surface waters would fall under the jurisdiction of the federal department, as well as the provincial and territorial ministries, of the environment. As the Department of Environment and Climate Change would be better able to identify any lake monitoring that may already be in place, you have taken the correct step in sending a copy of your correspondence to the Honourable Catherine McKenna, Minister of Environment and Climate Change.

Again, thank you for writing.

Yours sincerely ,

John Cooper

The toxin microcystin, produced by some species of blue-green algae, has been found in mussels in San Francisco Bay in concentrations that exceed guidelines for consumption. This is significant in that shellfish along California’s coast are routinely tested for toxins coming from saltwater algae, like red tide, but have not been tested for the freshwater toxins from blue-green algae. The possible ramifications of this are widespread as the incidence of blue-green algae and the resultant toxins have been increasing throughout North America. Many of the rivers and lakes infected with toxic algae drain into coastal waters. In Florida the toxic algae blooms have hit the coast in several areas, closing beaches and prompting the governor to declare a state of emergency in parts of the state the summer of 2016.Mussels densely packed on the rocks at Bedruthan Steps
I’m writing about this because it is one more red flag pointing to the urgency that we should be bringing to bear on the growing problem of blue-green algae. The solutions to decreasing this problem are within our control but to date actions to implement the solutions have been slow. Improving sewage treatment, adopting best management practices in agriculture and stopping the altering of landscapes through wetland drainage are some of the most important and “doable” actions.

Recently I attended a town hall meeting in Winnipeg put on by the Honourable Jim Carr, Minister of Natural Resources for Canada. I happen to one of his constituents but attended because of my interest in conservation and environmental stewardship as well as my hope for a healthy economy and job opportunities for Canadians now and in the future. The current focus on building pipelines to ensure jobs just seems so short-sighted that it compels me to express my views.
I was gratified to see standing room only at the meeting and to see many others of my vintage along with many younger folk who are part of the Manitoba Energy Justice Coalition. As people were expressing their concerns and Minister Carr expressed the government’s view on this

pipeline close-up

TransCanada pipeline crossing Winnipeg River near Kenora

(primarily that pipelines will bring jobs and money) it occurred to me that we’re not doing workers a favour by continuing to promote expansion of an industry that is in conflict with global goals of carbon reduction. It feels like an attempt to keep dinosaurs alive even though what sustains them no longer exists.
Why are we not jumping on the bandwagon to gear up our use of natural resources of sunlight, wind, tidal power, and geo-thermal as many other jurisdictions are doing? The recently formed organization of oil sands workers Iron and Earth have recognized that their future doesn’t lie solely in oil sands work but rather in developing and maintaining the renewable energy technologies so they are calling on government to ramp up training in these areas. One example of a project they’ve promoted is a 100% renewable energy greenhouse in St. John’s Newfoundland that will offer local employment.
The government’s continued support for oil sands expansion in Canada does nothing to encourage the diversification that will facilitate Canadians’ having healthy communities, job opportunities and solid finances in the future. This story comparing the current state of 2 North American cities, Denver and Calgary, is a concrete example of how diversification rather than focus on short-term profits can be of such benefit in the long term. Denver and Calgary both had beginnings in the mid-1800s and both were built on agriculture, railroads and energy. But after the energy crisis in the 1970’s their paths diverged as Denver leaders chose to diversify its economy while Calgary continued to be lured by oil profits. Today Denver has a thriving economy while Calgary is struggling.
I usually write about water related issues and this issue does relate to water in that the threat of pipeline spills is very real. However, overall the move towards a more diversified economy based on renewable, green energy and technology, will ultimately provide greater protection to our rivers and lakes.

Posted by: Vicki Burns | September 28, 2016

Citizen Science Helps in Fight to Decrease Blue-Green Algae

Over the spring and summer of 2016, there have been numerous reports of very serious blue-green algae blooms in many waterways around the USA. According to this article, the incidence of toxic algal blooms set historic records in California and many other American states. This is not the kind of record anyone wants to see but it should prompt us as a red flag about the severity of this issue.alberta
In Canada and particularly my home province of Manitoba, we did not hear about many toxic algal blooms this summer. However before we reassure ourselves that this is an indication the problem is diminishing, we need to understand that our surveillance of algal blooms is not as comprehensive as one might expect. Around Lake Winnipeg we rely on the public’s sighting of algal blooms in the south basin of the lake and have almost no knowledge of what is happening in the much larger north basin.
As I have mentioned in previous blogs, the issue of increasing algal blooms, many of which are toxic, is a measurable problem. Even if we do not have timely or accurate knowledge of the actual blooms we can measure the amount of phosphorus (which fuels the growth of the algae) that is getting into the water and we can measure fairly accurately what region of the watershed that phosphorus is coming from. Although we can do this, at present it is not comprehensively done in my home province of Manitoba. The provincial and federal governments have done some routine testing at certain geographical points but not enough to confidently point to hot spots for phosphorus. However the recent announcement of the Citizen Science Water Sampling Project by the Lake Winnipeg Foundation has great potential to change that.taking-water-samples
In the spring and summer of 2016, the Lake Winnipeg Foundation(LWF) partnered with Conservation Districts: Seine Rat River and LaSalle-Redboine to collect water samples during the spring melt and severe rainstorms to determine the amount of phosphorus in the run-off. The samples were analyzed for phosphorus content and collated with the rate of water flow. The results will be made public once the official analysis has been completed. Next year the LWF hopes to increase the number of Conservation Districts involved with the sampling and eventually will expand it to the general public who are interested in helping.
This project has huge potential to assist in actually diagnosing where we need to focus our efforts in phosphorus reduction. We already know that our sewage treatment facilities and lagoons are point sources of phosphorus but it’s much more difficult to pinpoint sources of agricultural run-off without more comprehensive testing. This citizen monitoring is a great start to being much more focussed in our efforts to both diagnose and remediate. Its definitely good news for the health of our lakes.

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