Lake deserves better

The shores of Lake Winnipeg have become the most coveted location for urban dwellers seeking an escape from city life during Manitoba’s hot summers.

A recent report from Royal LePage indicated Lake Winnipeg recreational property prices have steadily increased over the last few years, rising between 10 to 20 per cent during this period.

“Recreational property prices in this area are not tempering like they are in much of the country’s housing market as a result of buyers selling their properties in other cities and purchasing in the Lake Winnipeg area because of its affordability,” said Jim Muir, a sales representative for Royal LePage Dynamic Real Estate.

Property prices along Lake Winnipeg range between $60,000 and $600,000, with Victoria Beach, Gimli and the south end of Large Winnipeg having the most expensive properties in the area. Matlock, Winnipeg Beach and Gimli are cited as the most popular communities for young families seeking recreational properties.

Ideally, most of the people wanting to locate in cottage country expect to purchase properties close to or right along the lakefront.

But the big question now is how long Lake Winnipeg will remain the most popular region in cottage country if more is not done to clean up the lake.

What young family wants to live alongside a lake choked by algae that necessitates keeping children out of the water?

Just this week, it was reported that the provincial government  received a report in 1974 outlining Lake Winnipeg’s algae problem.

“In a very real sense, the industries, farms and urban centres in the Lake Winnipeg drainage basin are utilizing Lake Winnipeg as a receiving pond for their wastes and by-products,” warned a Canada-Manitoba task force which reported its findings to then Premier Ed Schreyer’s cabinet. “It is extremely important that activities in the drainage basin be managed so as not to jeopardize other uses of the lake.”

Everyone in Manitoba has a vested interest in keeping Lake Winnipeg, the world’s 11th largest freshwater lake, pristine and available to future generations whether they be cottage-goers, visitors or permanent residents.

While the province knew over 30 years ago the lake was in trouble, successive governments were slow to act. In 1974, the task force recommended  Canada and Manitoba spend $2 million for a three-year study of the lake and create a plan to reduce nutrients flowing into the lake, a recommendation that was ignored.

Actually, researchers began to notice changes in Lake Winnipeg earlier than 1974. Between 1969 and 1999, samples taken from the lake showed the level of blue-green algae blooms — the harmful type of algae — had been increasing dramatically.

The lake’s plight is a direct result of more phosphorous and nitrogen — the nutrients that feed algae — entering its waters than naturally occur.

A Manitoba Agriculture report indicated the nitrogen load in Lake Winnipeg had increased by 13 per cent and the phosphorous load by 10 per cent by 2001.

Scientists, such as the University’s Eva Pip, told of species disappearing from the lake due to the infusion of chemicals and their effects.

The problem is the good algae common to the lake and part of the food system for smaller creatures is increasingly being replaced by bad blue-green  algae that releases toxins harmful to marine life.

But studies were not required for cottage-goers and permanent residents visiting the region’s beaches to confirm  greater and more persistent algae outbreaks, and commercial fishermen plying their livelihood on the lake knew their nets were becoming increasingly clogged by clumps of algae. 

It was the region’s commercial fishermen, such as Robert Kristjanson of Gimli, who over the years issued warnings based upon their own experiences to the media about the increased algae blooms in Lake Winnipeg. Greg McCullough and Hedy Kling provided the wake-up call when they began posting satellite images on the Internet showing massive algae blooms in the lake’s north basin. By gaining public exposure, the spokespersons for the lake attracted the attention of politicians. As a result, Lake Winnipeg became an issue that could no longer be ignored.

Finally, the Doer government acted, introducing its Lake Winnipeg Action Plan in 2003 with a goal to reduce concentrations of nutrients to pre-1970s levels. The province then  updated its livestock waste management regulations, forced the city to upgrade its water treatment system and introduced legislation that will ban the use of phosphorous -containing lawn fertilizers effective 2009. 

Lake Erie, which was judged to be dying in the 1980s due to rotting algae removing oxygen from its waters, was in part resurrected by governments on both sides of the U.S.-Canada border banning the use of all phosphorous in household detergents and fertilizers. 

The provincial government’s actions of the last few years are a start, but there is still no real evidence of tangible results. The sad truth is that it took time to foul up the lake and it will take time to clean up the mess.

Al Kristofferson, the managing director of the Lake Winnipeg Research Consortium in Gimli, told Free Press writer Mary Agnes Welch, there is no indication the situation has improved on the lake. 

“But the good news is there is more awareness. We need to stop the speeding train and back it up,” added the research scientist.

It also doesn’t help that Lake Winnipeg’s problem also originates far beyond the province’s borders. Its fate depends just as much on what happens in Alberta, Saskatchewan, Northwestern Ontario, Minnesota and North Dakota — all part of the the lake’s one-million-square-kilometres drainage basin — as on what occurs in Manitoba.

The danger is real, although not without solutions that will ensure the Lake Winnipeg region remains the favoured location for Manitoba’s cottage-goers.