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.



In recent weeks there has been much news about Lake Winnipeg and the challenge of zebra mussels invading the lake and moving northward each day. Unfortunately some of the news spelled doom for the lake due to the effects that zebra mussels are assumed to produce. That is a topic for another day but I want to send the message that all is not lost and we must not give up on efforts to reduce the blue-green algae, some of which is toxic, that fouls the lake each year. The dynamics of the lake’s aquatic system will change but the whole lake need not die.

 Blue-Green Algae Victoria Beach, photo credit - G.McCullough

Blue-Green Algae Victoria Beach, photo credit – G.McCullough

Researchers are now saying that the Baltic Sea is showing signs of recovery and the reason I’m connecting that to possibilities for Lake Winnipeg, is that the Baltic suffers from toxic blue-green algae and zebra mussels. The Baltic Sea began to have serious problems with blue-green algae blooms more than half a century ago, in the 1950s, related to greater quantities of phosphorus and nitrogen running off the land into the water. In the 1980s there were great efforts made to improve wastewater treatment and to decrease inputs from agriculture so that the amount of phosphorus and nitrogen getting into the water was reduced substantially. Those efforts are really paying off now.
We need to make the same thing happen for Lake Winnipeg. The appearance of zebra mussels in the lake should not be an excuse to decrease any efforts or investments in cutting down on the amount of phosphorus getting into the lake. Recently we’ve learned that zebra mussels eat a great deal of algae but they don’t like the blue-green algae so spit it out. Unfortunately that means the blue-greens will have an additional advantage. However it only emphasizes even more the need to take action faster to improve our wastewater treatment and to decrease agricultural run-off.
I am currently awaiting information from Manitoba Conservation and Water Stewardship regarding the establishment of measurable targets for phosphorus inputs from the tributaries and rivers in Manitoba that are part of the Lake Winnipeg watershed. If we are serious about making progress surely we must establish concrete, measurable targets and then report openly about them each year. If not, are we just paying lip service to saving Lake Winnipeg?

Posted by: Vicki Burns | October 15, 2015

Climate Change, Lake Winnipeg and Blue-Green Algae

Floods on Red River , compiled by Manitoba Conservation and Water Stewardship

Floods on Red River , compiled by Manitoba Conservation and Water Stewardship

Over the past year, we are hearing the term “climate change” used much more frequently in main stream media, usually in relation to big storms including typhoons, hurricanes, wind, rain and snow storms. But the concrete effect of climate change on our lakes has not been described often.
I first became aware of the very real effects already being observed when I read the Lake of the Woods Water Sustainability Foundation’s Phosphorus Budget Studies report in 2011. I was amazed to learn that on average the Lake of the Woods has 28 more ice free days each year than it had in the 1960s.In essence this means the lake may be thawing 2 weeks earlier in the spring and freezing 2 weeks later in the fall. This provides almost a whole month longer of growing season for algae, much of which is blue-green algae(cyanobacteria).
Information on the number of ice-free days on Lake Winnipeg is not readily available but Manitoba Hydro has prepared a comprehensive report that looks at historical and future climate predictions for the Lake Winnipeg Watershed. It is very illuminating to see some of the already evident changes in normal air temperatures in communities close to the lake. In Gimli, the mean annual temperature from 1971 to 2000 was 1.8 but in 6 of the 9 years between 1999 to 2007 that mean was exceeded.
The increase in major storm events in the Lake Winnipeg Watershed is resulting in more flooding which exacerbates the problem of blue-green algae because of the excess of phosphorus and nitrogen that is pulled off the land. In Manitoba over the past 60 years we have experienced floods in 1950, 1997, 2009 and 2011 which caused substantial damage, especially along the Red River and Assiniboine River basins. As well the weather bomb that hit Lake Winnipeg in October 2010 caused tremendous damage due to erosion and flooding.

Algae Winnipeg River Oct. 9, 2015

Algae on Winnipeg River Oct. 9, 2015

This article about lakes in Nebraska caught my attention because it highlights the persistence of toxic algal blooms in 4 lakes in that state well into the fall season. Normally they would have been gone weeks ago but because of warm weather they lasted into October. According to Dr. Ali Kahn, dean of the School of Public Health at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. “You get increased algal blooms. You get increased marine toxins that in turn make their way into your food supply.” He is warning that humans are already experiencing negative health effects from a warming climate.
So to sum up, Lake Winnipeg and other lakes throughout North America are showing the effects of a warming climate, the proliferation of blue-green algae being one of the most visible signs.Bold, timely and substantial action is needed now to decrease the degradation of our lakes.

I came across some news items in the last few days that confirm my sense that the threats of toxic blue-green algae blooms are increasing in many areas around North America. It seems important to ensure that the public understand this so that they will take the appropriate precautions if there are algae present. I’m often surprised by the comment I hear from various people “we’ve always had algae and there are historical reports documenting thick algae 200 years ago”. I usually respond that it was different species of algae, not the blue-green (cyanobacteria) that dominate now.

Blue-Green Algae sludge

Blue-Green Algae sludge

The first news item is from a few months ago but remains very timely and relevant. It is a study involving researchers from France, Italy, Spain, the UK, Malaysia, and across Canada.The title of the study is“Acceleration of cyanobacterial dominance in north temperate-subarctic lakes during the Anthropocene”, and it was published in the February issue of the online science journal Ecology Letters. It shows that cyanobacteria has been on the increase since 1900 but has grown much more rapidly since the 1950s. The researchers were able to look at core samples taken from the sediments of lakes going back 200 years. They surmise that the proliferation of cyanobacteria has flourished in part due to a warming climate as well as the addition of more nutrients, phosphorus and nitrogen, from sewage and crop fertilizers.
Another news item that caught my attention is about the huge toxic blue-green algae bloom that has overwhelmed the Ohio River in recent weeks. The bloom is now stretching 636 miles of the 981 mile long river. The only other toxic algae bloom recorded in this river was about 40 miles long and occurred in 2008. So this year’s occurrence is outstanding in a very alarming way.

Ohio River map, courtesy of

Ohio River map,

To reiterate my earlier comment, I hope that members of the public will understand that many of the algae blooms we are seeing in our North American lakes now,are composed of cyanobacteria, some of which contain harmful toxins. If we don’t acknowledge this as a real problem, there is less likelihood that we will make the changes and investments necessary to keep our lakes and rivers safe and clean. We can make a difference now to ensure our grandchildren have swimmable, drinkable, fishable lakes in their lifetimes.

I was encouraged to see news about this report on the proposed Energy East Pipeline released by the Ontario Energy Board. Essentially the OEB is raising serious cautions about the risks to Ontario’s environment with relatively little benefit to the province. The economic benefits to the province are minimal in comparison to the potential costs of an oil spill. It’s very refreshing to have a mainstream organization (OEB) confirm what many of us who are considered environmentalists have been raising the red flags about over the past year.
The OEB is specifically raising concerns about the risk of an oil spill to many major waterways in Ontario, including Lake of the Woods. They don’t mention the Winnipeg River which is where we are lucky enough to have a cottage. However we know that the TransCanada natural gas pipeline which will be converted to transport oil, actually runs across the Winnipeg River in a few locations. Here is a picture of one of the crossing spots which is just a couple of kilometers upstream of our cottage.

TransCanada pipeline crossing Winnipeg River near Kenora

TransCanada pipeline crossing Winnipeg River near Kenora

I hope that the other provinces, including Manitoba, pay attention to this report and give serious consideration to the ramifications of possible oil spills. Residents of Winnipeg and many other smaller communities in Manitoba ought to pay attention to how close the pipeline runs to our drinking water sources. This report by Dennis LeNeveu for the Manitoba Energy Justice Coalition spells out specifics of what we need to consider.
As far as I’m concerned the Energy East Pipeline is far too close for comfort. It’s not worth the risks to our life sustaining water supplies.

I have been focussing much attention on the problem of blue-green algae fouling many of our lakes since 2008 but many others have been drawing attention to this issue for several decades. The reason I’m drawing attention to the timeline is that although there is increasing attention through “talk” there is still far too little action to address the problem.  This is a problem that is measurable – we can measure the amount of phosphorus and nitrogen entering our lakes via the many streams and rivers that flow into them and we can measure the actual concentration of those nutrients in the lake’s water. So if we have the tools and knowledge to measure, we can determine fairly accurately whether we are making progress in decreasing the amount of phosphorus and nitrogen entering the waters.
It is true that there are several factors that affect the flow of these nutrients including the weather in any given year. If there is heavy snowfall or rainstorms, we know that will increase the amount running off the landscape via floods, storm-water overflows of sewage, etc. We also know now that legacy phosphorus (phosphorus that sinks to the bottom of the lakes into the sediments) is contributing to growing algal problems in some lakes. Another contributing factor of climate change is the increase in the number of ice-free days on many lakes, making a longer growing season for algae.

Algae off Elk Island, Lake Winnipeg Sept. 2014

Algae off Elk Island, Lake Winnipeg Sept. 2014

But even with these various factors, it is still possible and reasonable to set specific, measurable goals for nutrient reduction in various actions that are being undertaken. For example if there is an upgrade to a sewage treatment system it is reasonable to measure the amount of phosphorus and nitrogen in the effluent. If there is a restored or constructed wetland, it is possible to measure the amount of nutrients in the streams running out of the wetland.
So isn’t it time to get very serious about addressing this problem by setting measurable goals and expecting annual accountability on results? In Manitoba, Premier Selinger announced a goal in 2011 of reducing the phosphorus concentration in the south basin of the lake to .05mg/L. The current average over the past 4 years is about .112 mg/L (Water Quality Management Section 2015,Manitoba Conservation and Water Stewardship,123 Main Street, Suite 160,Winnipeg MB R3C 1A5). This is an admirable goal but we need to set the annual goals on the various actions that will contribute to meeting the overall goal.
I know from experience that setting an end goal is very important but doing the work to determine how to meet that goal is essential if you’re serious about it. Its long past time to expect specific, measurable targets for nutrient reduction from the various sectors that are contributing to the problem and to expect annual reporting on results. Surely having clean, safe water in our lakes is worth that effort.

Posted by: Vicki Burns | June 17, 2015

Threats from Blue-Green Algae Not Always Obvious

Jess Enjoying a Boat ride, Winnipeg River

Jess Enjoying a Boat ride, Winnipeg River

I was dismayed to receive this Channel 5 ABC news piece from Minnesota that describes the death of a dog from  ingesting toxins from blue-green algae in Red Rock Lake in Minnesota. The most concerning thing about this news is that the owner of the dog describes the lake water as being very clear (no apparent blue-green algae present) which is why she felt it was safe to let her dog play in the water. The dog apparently started having seizures within half an hour of being in the water and died on the way to the veterinarian’s clinic.
I consulted with an algal taxonomist who suggests that what  might have been present is Anabaena, a genus of Cyanobacteria  which can produce both Microcystins and anatoxins ( neurotoxins).With the dog becoming so severely ill so quickly it was probably a neurotoxin that he ingested.  Apparently it is not difficult to test the waters to see if any of the neuro toxin producers are present. However at this point I don’t think there is any testing being done in Manitoba or northwestern Ontario .
I have asked both Manitoba Water Stewardship and Ontario Ministry of the Environment whether they are conducting any tests  and I will report back on any responses I get. I don’t want to be fear-mongering but as a dog owner I understand how devastating it would be to lose a beloved pet in this way. I think we are going to have to push for more significant monitoring of our lakes to ensure the safety of our waters, for humans and animals.

« Newer Posts - Older Posts »


%d bloggers like this: