Newsflash: Lake Winnipeg is in serious trouble

Elizabeth May

Yesterday in Question Period, I was shocked to hear Parliamentary secretary Michelle Rempel proclaim that that the Conservatives have “cleaned up Lake Winnipeg.”

It is true that the Prime Minister has mentioned Lake Winnipeg.  He has even announced $20 million for the clean-up of Lake Winnipeg.  This was done in July on a trip to Manitoba when protesters had gathered to protest the closing of the Experimental Lakes Area -- which was in the midst of researching what to do to save Lake Winnipeg.   Those close to the issue tell me the money was largely re-profiled from other announcements, but at least, it is true that this is one environmental issue about which Stephen Harper seems acquainted. 

I know that the Prime Minister is more powerful than any previous Prime Minister, but, no matter how revered by his caucus, speaking the words does not speak them into reality. 

Lake Winnipeg is a long way from cleaned up – and almost as shocking as Ms. Rempel’s talking points was the fact that jaws didn’t drop on all sides of the House.  I realized that Parliament, and maybe even most Canadians, do not know that Lake Winnipeg is in serious trouble. 

It is the tenth largest freshwater lake in the world.  Since the mid-1990s, Lake Winnipeg has experienced more frequent and more intense blooms of blue-green algae called cyanobacteria. Many species of cyanobacteria produce potent human and brain toxins that are harmful to people, pets, and wildlife.  The growth of algae threatens the survival of fish in Lake Winnipeg and the lake itself. This algae is created by run-off of fertilizers, phosphorus and nitrogen, running off farmers’ fields and from the large mega-hog barns.  The problem is being amplified due to climate change. As the hydrological cycle speeds up, heavier deluge rain events are more frequent, sweeping more nutrients into the lake.  Observations by satellite confirm the summer blooms are covering a larger area and increasing in frequency. 

The problem is that it is not clear how we can save Lake Winnipeg.  It is enormous – 24,500 square kilometres.  Cleaning up smaller lakes elsewhere in the world has run to billions.  Meanwhile, the nutrients keep draining into the lake, the rains continue to become more intense.

Lake Winnipeg is not alone.  According to some scientists, Lake Erie is now in worse shape than in 1970 when Life magazine’s cover story proclaimed “Lake Erie is dead.”

Freshwater issues we thought were solved in the 1970s are coming back – with a vengeance.  And worryingly, it seems to have escaped the notice of many of us. 

Meanwhile, critical research to find out what can be done to save Lake Winnipeg has been cancelled.  As Ray Hesslein of the Lake Winnipeg Foundation science advisory board said quoted in the Winnipeg Free Press when the PM made his announcement:

"Much of the fundamental understanding of nutrient management in lakes so critical to the recovery of Lake Winnipeg has and is being developed at the ELA."

Closing the Experimental Lakes Area is like shutting down a fire station while the fire is spreading.  And, memo to the PMO talking point factory: Lake Winnipeg is not saved.