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.

Posted by: Vicki Burns | August 10, 2016

Saving our Lakes, Decreasing the Blue-Green Algae Threat

On Thursday August 25, 2016 at 7 pm I am giving a presentation at the McNally Robinson classroom (Winnipeg) on Saving Our Lakes, Decreasing the Blue-Green Algae Threat. Every summer Lake Winnipeg and many other rivers and lakes across North America are being plagued by blooms of blue-green algae, some of which contain dangerous toxins. These algae blooms are causing swimming, fishing and boating advisories that hinder our precious lake time, even threatening drinking water safety in some instances. However the good news is that we can make changes that will decrease this threat and increase the probability of our grandchildren having safe, swimmable, fishable water in our lakes.

image of 3 children splashing in water

Kids playing in safe, clean water

I am offering the presentation at McNally’s because over the past few years I have noticed, in many conversations with different people, that there is not a good general understanding of what is causing the occurrence of these algal blooms. So my goal has been to try to increase that knowledge base by offering public presentations using language geared to the general public. My hope is that the more people understand about what is causing the increased and sometimes toxic algal blooms, the greater the possibility that we can initiate action to decrease the problem.
If you or anyone you know is interested in learning more about what we can do to decrease this problem, please consider joining me on August 25. Registration can be done online at

In recent weeks the daily “google alert” I have set up to capture news about algae blooms has been flooded with warnings primarily from the USA as well as a few from Canada. There have been none so far about Lake Winnipeg which is in my home province of Manitoba but we will likely see some of those later in July and August.
The problem of blue-green algae blooms ( cyanobacteria officially) is increasing each year it seems and this year Florida actually declared a state of emergency due to the severity of the bloom around Lake Okeechobee and counties in southern Florida. It is being reported that millions of dollars of revenue were lost over the July 4 holiday weekend due to toxic algae worries.

close up of blue green algae sludge

Blue-Green Algae sludge

One of the most worrying impacts of the blue-green algae is that some of it contains toxins that are released when the algal cells die and these toxins can be lethal to animals and cause very serious health problems to humans. The extent of the problem is not well known or understood yet because there has been no consistent monitoring of incidence of human illness, either in the USA or in Canada. So I was encouraged to see that the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) in the USA has established a new surveillance system where states can report cases of cyanotoxin related illnesses. At this point the reporting is voluntary not mandatory but hopefully it will encourage more education of both medical personnel and the public, about the possible impacts of contact with blue-green algae affected waters.
As I’ve said many times before, this is a problem that we can fix by decreasing the amount of phosphorus and nitrogen that we allow to get into our waters. Improving sewage treatment, adopting best management practices in agriculture, careful development planning and restoring wetlands are all part of the solution. I’m hoping that more focus on the human health threats of exposure to blue-green algae will prompt governments everywhere to get moving on implementing the solutions. The costs of not doing so are growing.

The Everglades Foundation in Florida has launched the George Barley Prize of $10 million to be awarded in 2020 to the inventor of a technology to withdraw phosphorus from lakes and estuaries in Florida that are polluting the Everglades. The problem of excess phosphorus that is causing the growth of often toxic algae is not just limited to Florida but is becoming a huge concern in many areas around the world, including Manitoba where I reside.
In Florida , Lake Okeechobee becomes the repository of much phosphorus from agricultural run-off and inadequate sewage treatment with the problem growing as heavy rainstorms intensify bringing more run-off into the lake and ultimately into the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee Rivers. Blue-green algae takes over the rivers causing fish kills and dangers for human health.


Caloosahatchee Algae Bloom

In Canada we have numerous lakes and rivers that are plagued by blue-green algae some of which contains dangerous toxins. Lake Winnipeg has become well known for this challenge but it is joined by many other lakes across the country suffering from the same problem. So the results of this $10 million dollar competition could be a huge help to many of our Canadian lakes .
I am surprised to see that to date, there is only one competitor from Canada out of the 49 entries, Noble Purification Inc. out of Peterborough, Ontario. $10 million should be quite an incentive to encourage others to get involved in this competition. Our lakes and rivers will appreciate all the help they can get.

Posted by: Vicki Burns | May 18, 2016

BMAA in Lake Winnipeg Warrants Further Research

Last month I posted a letter I had written to the Minister of Health for Canada asking if there was any research underway to determine the presence of BMAA in Canadian lakes. BMAA is a toxin present in some blue-green algae(cyanobacteria)in other parts of the world that may have a causal link to the occurrence of motor neuron diseases like ALS, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s in some individuals. I was not aware of any research to determine if this is a toxin that is present in Lake Winnipeg or other Canadian water bodies.BMAA link to Neurodegenerative diseases
I have not received a reply from the Minister of Health yet but I did receive some communication which alerted me to research that had occurred right here at the University of Winnipeg under the direction of Dr. Eva Pip, Department of Biology. The research paper “Seasonal Nearshore Occurrence of the Neurotoxin β-N-methylamino-L-alanine (BMAA) in Lake Winnipeg, Canada” was published online on April 28, 2016 by the Canadian Centre of Science and Education. Researchers took samples from 3 near shore locations in the south basin of Lake Winnipeg starting at Patricia Beach during the ice-free season between May and November, 2011. The samples were collected every 4 days and results showed that BMAA can be detected in nearshore Lake Winnipeg water in varying amounts.
There is much more research needed to determine what degree of concern we should have about BMAA and the occurrence of motor neuron diseases. At this point it’s not clear what the variety of avenues there are for human exposure to this toxin but I think the pre-cautionary principle would certainly apply and that we should be very careful to avoid exposure when blue-green algae is present.

For the last couple of years there has been increasing news about the possible connection between BMAA, a toxin in some blue-green algae, and motor neuron diseases like ALS, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. In 2014, I contacted Health Canada to see if there is any testing in Canadian waters to see if BMAA is present. Their response was that there was not enough evidence to confirm a link. Here is the letter I have just sent asking again for testing in Canada. I will publish the response I receive.

April 13, 2016
The Hon. Jane Philpott
Minister of Health, Government of Canada

Dear Dr.Phipott,

Re: Toxin BMAA in Blue-Green Algae and link to Motor Neuron Disease (Alzheimer’s, ALS, Parkinson’s)
I am writing to raise the issue of the possibility of a link between a toxin present in some blue-green algae blooms, BMAA, and the incidence of motor neuron diseases like ALS, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s. In the past few years there has been research emerge from Australia and now from several locations in the USA that strengthens that possibility.

My reason for writing to you is to request that you consider directing Health Canada staff to begin testing some blue-green algae blooms in various locations across Canada to determine if BMAA is present. I contacted Health Canada in 2014 to ask if this was being done yet and was told that it is not because there is not enough evidence yet to confirm the link. I believe the body of evidence is growing which would support the need to test for the presence of that toxin in Canadian waters.
Blue-green algae (scientifically know as cyanobacteria) is becoming an increasing threat in many lakes across the country. A study 

Algae Victoria Beach Aug. 1 2010

Blue-green algae on the shores of Lake Winnipeg

released by Diane Orihel et al in 2012 showed the presence of blue-green algae in 250 lakes across Canada and the toxin, microcystin, was present in 246. Researchers from Oregon State University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill released a study in 2013 that documented the increasing toxicity in cyanobacterial blooms. Dr. E. Stommel, a researcher and neurologist at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in New Hampshire, has documented occurrence of ALS 25 times higher than expected in people living around a particular lake that has frequent algal blooms. Given this research as well as anecdotal reports (we do not have a Canadian registry of cyanobacterial occurrences) of the frequency of these blooms increasing in many lakes, it would seem wise to begin testing for toxins, like BMAA, that we know are present in cyanobacteria in other areas of the world.
In conclusion, I reiterate the importance of determining if the toxin BMAA is present in water bodies in Canada that experience frequent blue-green algae blooms given that scientists are now stating that chronic exposure to this environmental toxin, BMAA, may increase risk of neurodegenerative illness. The costs of human suffering along with the medical and care costs for the victims of these diseases, make any preventative measures a wise investment.
Thank you in advance for your consideration of this request.
Yours truly,

Vicki Burns
Director, Save Lake Winnipeg Project

Posted by: Vicki Burns | March 14, 2016

Toxic Algae Bloom Hits Salmon Farms in Chile

Recently my husband and I had the privilege of travelling to South America and sailing around the most southern part of the continent from Buenos Aires to Valparaiso, through the beautiful Patagonia region. We were thrilled to see penguins, glaciers and the Chilean Fjords in areas that looked almost untouched by human existence. But sadly, even in this remote area, our human actions have contributed to a huge toxic algal bloom that has had a devastating effect on the salmon farms in the region, and likely other aquatic life.

While we were visiting Puerto Montt , which is a lovely seaside town in Chile, we noticed what appeared to be blue-green algae close to the shore in town. Subsequently we learned about the extent of the bloom and its impact on the farmed salmon. 23 million salmon have died as a result of the toxic algal bloom.


Puerto Montt, Chile – photo credit Tourismo-Cultura. Com


The practice of raising salmon in waters where they are only separated from the wild fish by netting is hazardous to the wild fish in the area because viruses and bacteria that exist in the farmed population can easily be transmitted through the mesh netting to the wild population. In this incident in Chile it is likely that the phosphorus and nitrogen in the waste of the farmed fish contributed to the algal bloom along with the changing climatic conditions related to global warming. The farming of fish in these circumstances poses similar threats as the intensive production systems used in the hog industry and other industrialized animal agriculture. Too many animals being kept in close confinement with thousands of others creates a perfect breeding ground for viruses because of the high stress level of the animals. As well, the huge amount of waste emanating from the animals often poses threats to the natural environment because of the excess phosphorus and nitrogen that gets into local waters.

In my view, the solution is to decrease the number of animals and fish that we are trying to raise in such confined spaces.Downsizing in much of what we do from the amount of meat and fish we eat, to all the goods we acquire, can only help to decrease the impact we’re having on the natural world. Our recent trip to South America emphasized to us the degree to which our actions are impacting our environment and in many circumstances fouling the very waters we need for survival. The good news is that we can reverse this trend if we start to make some different choices.

In the past few weeks I have been made aware of a proposed new sewage lagoon in the Rural Municipality of Cartier near St. Francois-Xavier. The proposed lagoon is very close to the Assiniboine River, situated in a designated flood zone between roads 424 on one side of the river and 26 on the other side. The effluent from the lagoon will be discharged twice annually via a 135 meter long drain into the Assiniboine River (135 meters is .135 of a kilometre or .08 of a mile).

In fairness the sewage will be held in a 2 cell lagoon and is not to be discharged until it has met certain environmental standards established by the Manitoba government. As well it apparently will be quite an improvement over the current sewage lagoon in this particular situation. However even without the very real threat of flooding that has occurred in the Assiniboine River Basin in the past 5 years, this lagoon’s discharge is too close to the river to allow much filtering of nutrients and other pollutants before it enters the Assiniboine River. If one were to consider the merits of this new lagoon as if it were the only one to flush into the Assiniboine River, than it might be conceivable to allow it to happen. But it is important to note that there are hundreds of lagoons emptying into this one river so we need to consider the cumulative impacts of treating our sewage in this manner. All of this sewage is providing much phosphorus that feeds the blue-green algae blooms, some of which contain toxins.

In this day and age, when we are aware of the negative impacts of minimal treatment of our sewage on our rivers and lakes, it does amaze me that government is considering allowing this to go ahead. There are much more effective options for progressive treatment of human sewage and if we continue to allow this type of approach, then we are simply paying lip service to the goal of saving Lake Winnipeg.

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”.

Posted by: Vicki Burns | December 10, 2015

Deadly Flooding in Britain Exacerbated by Human Actions

The terrible flooding in northwest England resulting from Storm Desmond brings to mind some of the extreme flooding we have seen across the Prairies in Canada in the past decade. In Britain, the worst hit area of Cumbria received about a month’s worth of rain in just one day, approximately 34 centimetres. This degree of flooding used to be called a “once in 100 years event” but this type of catastrophe has happened 3 times in the past decade in Cumbria. No doubt climate change plays a big part in this with the extra heat in the atmosphere allowing more moisture to be held and then dumped in these big storms.cumbria flooding
However, it’s not climate change alone that can be blamed for this type of flooding. Man-made alterations of our natural landscapes are decreasing the resiliency of the land to slow down and absorb some of the rain as it falls. In England, the clearing of trees from the land to increase pasture size and the dredging and canalising of rivers has exacerbated the damage as huge torrents of water rush over the land ending up flooding communities in its path. In Canada we know that the draining of almost 70% of our wetlands is contributing to similar destructive flooding. The need to keep water on the land has never been more urgent.
We now understand that clearing land, straightening river channels, draining wetlands all contribute to massive damage caused by great flows of water rushing off the land as these big storms occur. We can no longer justify these types of actions or we will be guilty of wilful ignorance. There will, of course, be need to clear for some development but remedial action to restore the lost resiliency of the land should be part of any landscape changes. In my home province of Manitoba in Canada, there was recent legislation put forward  which embodied the principle of “no net loss“of wetland benefits when drainage occurs. Unfortunately that legislation has not moved forward due to termination of the legislative session but hopefully will do so when the session reconvenes in the New Year.
The damage and destruction of floods is expected to continue more frequently as the climate warms. Our actions to decrease the overall severity of that damage should include “keeping water on the land” to slow it down. Changing human behaviour is never easy but we’ll experience so much more pain if we don’t embrace this change to recognize and appreciate the resiliency inherent in our natural landscapes

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