Posted by: Vicki Burns | January 18, 2016

Awareness, Action, Accountability – Lake Winnipeg’s Health at Stake

As we enter the new year of 2016, I am drawn to think of time lines and what is happening to our beloved lakes, of which Lake Winnipeg has become an icon. It is almost 4 decades since scientists were warning the Manitoba government that we needed to drastically reduce nutrients (phosphorus and nitrogen) if we wanted to protect water quality in the lake. It is almost 2 decades since some retired scientists volunteered to create the Lake Winnipeg Research Consortium to encourage study of Lake Winnipeg and the emerging blue-green algae blooms that were threatening the lake. It is over 1 decade since a group of concerned citizens got together to form the Lake Winnipeg Foundation. It is almost 3 years since the Manitoba government set up the Lake Friendly Stewards Alliance.

Free Press article about scientists warning about nutrient reduction

By comparison, another time line is very illuminating, the measurement of the concentration of phosphorus in the lake’s waters. Between 1800 to 1900 the concentration on average was .02 mg/l; from 1900 to 1990 the concentration more than doubled to .05 mg/l and from 1990 to present it has doubled again to .10mg/l. Considering that phosphorus is the primary nutrient facilitating the growth of blue-green algae (some of which is toxic) our intent to decrease phosphorus getting into the lake has not resulted in any positive change.

Historical Data on P concentrations in Lake Winnipeg, courtesy of Manitoba Water Stewardship

Recently a research article caught my attention. Are harmful algal blooms becoming the greatest inland water quality threat to public health and aquatic ecosystems?Brooks et al. This article along with another one from a few months ago that documented the expansion of harmful cyanobacterial (blue-green algae blooms) in lakes around the world, ought to be raising red flags for us. The deteriorating health of our lakes, Lake Winnipeg among the most notable, is a tremendous concern for so many reasons. As I have stated many times before it doesn’t have to be this way.

There has been plenty of awareness building over the past decade, little concrete action to actually cut phosphorus getting into the lake and very little accountability to report annually on phosphorus inputs to the lake. It’s long past time to get serious about requiring more than awareness building. Concrete actions with annual accountability reports should be the norm from now on if we want to pay more than lip service to the health of our lakes. As the old saying goes “Actions Speak Louder Than Words”.



  1. I just keep wondering what can we do as citizens to make a difference? We have written letters asking the city to improve the water treatment plant with no worthy answers . Then you hear of the sewage spills into the Red River. We use less water, phosphate free soaps, don’t use fertilizers . Where do we go from here?

    • I think writing to the city councillors and mayor is the best thing you can do. Even if they don’t give satisfactory answers, it lets them know that their constituents are thinking about this.

      • I will keep writing. I will also have my students write too. Thanks.

      • I also wonder if we need to lobby for an environmental rights bill in Manitoba.

  2. That would be terrific to encourage your students to write as well. Very encouraging. Thank you!

    • Yes an Environmental Bill of Rights would be terrific and the David Suzuki Foundation has a campaign about that right now. If you go to their website it will have further info on that I think.

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