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

Posted by: Vicki Burns | November 26, 2015

Important Protection For Wetlands, Manitoba Introduces Legislation

On November 24,2015 the government of Manitoba introduced Bill 5, The Surface Water Management Act that will enable regulations to control wetland drainage and that recognizes the value of wetland benefits by enshrining the “no net loss” principle. This is a hugely important move in that the continuing drainage of wetlands across the Prairies is exacerbating flooding, fouling of our lakes with blue-green algae and decreasing our ability to cope with drought. This proposed legislation comes at a time when the whole world is focussed on the COP21 meetings which makes the value of wetlands to act as carbon sinks an important tool in the climate change fight. According to Ducks Unlimited Canada, “wetlands protected by the pending sustainable drainage regulations in Manitoba will potentially prevent approximately 418 million tonnes of greenhouse gases from entering the atmosphere – equivalent to the emissions of four million passenger vehicles over 20 years”.

Grand Beach wetlands
In 2014, John Pomeroy of the University of Saskatchewan Centre for Hydrology, released a study that demonstrated the wetland drainage over the last 50 years increased the peak flow during the flood of 2011 by 30%. Considering that Manitoba’s flood costs for 2011 exceeded $1.025 billion, the financial burden alone becomes strong motivation to stop wetland drainage, not to mention the human suffering and loss of habitat for wildlife.
The growing threat of blue-green algae blooms (some of which contain dangerous toxins) in many Prairie lakes is another important factor in the push to protect and restore wetlands. The reason – wetlands are “nature’s kidneys”. They filter much of the phosphorus and nitrogen and other pollutants that contribute to problems in our lakes and rivers.
Many jurisdictions throughout North America are recognising the value of wetlands and the damage we’ve caused by draining so many over the past century. The province of Alberta is investing $31 million over the next 3 years to restore wetlands. The city of New Orleans has identified the conservation and restoration of coastal wetlands as one of their key protections to decrease flooding after the Hurricane Katrina disaster of 2005.
The Manitoba government’s proposed legislation doesn’t come a moment too soon. I hope that it will be passed with expediency and that the supporting regulations will be developed quickly so that the spring of 2016 will bring a whole new approach to responsible drainage, wetland protection  and restoration so that we truly see “no net loss” of the benefits wetlands bring us.


Grand Beach June 2014

It seems that every day now we are seeing news items in mainstream media about climate change and the upcoming COP21 meetings in Paris on Nov.30, 2015. Many of us, Canadians, are hoping that our federal government, under the recently elected Trudeau Liberals, will take a much more proactive approach to reducing our CO2 emissions. Canada has been infamous for receiving the fossil award at international meetings in recent years and that is a designation we want to see gone.
I’m encouraged to see so much more attention in mainstream media about climate change because I think there are still quite a number of people who have not fully accepted that this is very real challenge we face.  It seems to me that if we can identify how climate change has already impacted some of the areas where we live, it will help to broaden acceptance and support for the changes we’ll all need to make.
Last month I posted a blog about the impact of climate change on Lake Winnipeg and other North American lakes. I focussed primarily on the issue of much longer ice-free days on our lakes due to warming temperatures resulting in earlier spring ice break-up and later fall freeze-up. That translates into longer growing seasons for algae. Recently I received this report authored by Dr. Greg McCullough, of the University of Manitoba’s Centre of Earth Observation Science. It highlights a different impact of climate change on Lake Winnipeg – the greatly increased flow into the lake from both the Red River and the Winnipeg River which results in increased flow of phosphorus as well.
The annual flow from the Red River into Lake Winnipeg has increased 160% between 1920 and 2010 while the flow from the Winnipeg River has gone up 53%.  These increased flows are a result of more intense weather events (snow and rain storms) as well as drainage of a huge percentage of wetlands within the watershed. It is well recognized that the flow of phosphorus (the nutrient that feeds the blue-green algae) into the lake is greatly increased with storm events, thus adding to the impact of climate change.
These increased flows into Lake Winnipeg (along with isostatic rebound) have resulted in the level of the lake averaging one foot higher than it was in the early 20th century. Without Hydro’s regulation of the lake, it would have been 2 feet higher on average (2002 -2011) with isostatic rebound accounting for .7ft. and increased flows accounting for the other1.3 ft.
To summarize, climate change is impacting Lake Winnipeg and many other lakes by contributing to the proliferation of blue-green algae, much of which contains dangerous toxins. There are many good reasons for all of us to work to increase efforts to decrease emissions causing climate change, not the least of which is the threat to clean, safe water in our lakes.



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