Just another day at the beach

In the shadow of what could very well be North America’s largest oil disaster — certainly constituting much more than a spill — a look at our waters closer to home reveals a haunting narrative of callousness. Do we really care about the state of our water, both locally and globally? Lake Winnipeg is at a crisis point and yet is this fact even enough for us to change our reckless ways?

The formation of Lake Winnipeg
Long before there was Lake Winnipeg, Lake Agassiz covered a massive portion of North America. Spanning large portions of present-day Alberta, Manitoba, Ontario, North Dakota and Minnesota, the lake was formed by the run-off from melting glaciers over 11,000 years ago. As the contours of what can truly be called North America’s greatest lake continued to shift, it took a couple thousand more years for the land to look even remotely similar to how we know it today. The five Great Lakes and Lake Winnipeg, as well as many other lakes, owe their beginnings to Lake Agassiz.

Lake Winnipeg is now one of the 20 largest lakes in the world and it is also considered to be among the most shallow, with depths at an average of around 60 metres. In comparison, Lake Baikal in Siberia has depths up to 1,700 metres.

The people of Lake Winnipeg
For thousands of years, the shores of this unpredictable lake have been home to First Nations peoples, most notably the Cree and Ojibway. As part of their world view, the waters were revered and respected while used extensively for fishing and traveling. But as European settlers began to enter the area in the early 1800s, the surroundings of Lake Winnipeg also began to slowly change.

Settlers were captivated by the bountiful fish, animals and berries that could be found in and around the lake during the summer. However, winters were very difficult on settlers — many of whom would not have survived without the aid and knowledge of local First Nations. But the onslaught of colonization and associated diseases proved devastating as First Nations’ numbers were reduced and European values began to take over. The fur trade began to replace the traditional subsistence-based economy of First Nations and the much contested treaties reduced First Nations peoples to small parcels of land around and away from Lake Winnipeg, opening up the area to even more settlers.

A glance at the human geography around Lake Winnipeg today reveals that people have truly settled around the lake and in its watershed (the area containing the rivers and streams that flow into the lake). Sometimes referred to as “cottage country,” the beautiful beaches of Lake Winnipeg are summer Meccas for many city dwellers. An estimated 5.5 million people call the Lake Winnipeg watershed home, with approximately 80 per cent of these people living in cities.

Another colonial vestige that remains contentious to this day came with the advent of hydroelectricity. Canada is one of the world’s largest producers of hydro-power with a total of over 800 dams. There are extensive human, environmental and animal impacts associated with dams that the Manitoban’s Sheldon Birnie elaborates on in his article “Hydro’s green wash shows signs of fading.” But as Manitoba Hydro sells $350 to $580 million worth of exported hydroelectricity each year, there is little chance of seeing necessary changes any time soon.

Lake Winnipeg’s problems
And now here we are, with a lake that we love but are not taking care of. There are now permanent warning signs on some Lake Winnipeg beaches with days when the water along the shoreline is so thick with algae that only the brave swim — there are people who actually get sick from swimming in the water. Massive blue-green algae blooms are a looming threat at the northern center of the lake and species which call the lake home are suffering because of it.

The causes of this situation are not complex. Nutrients from fertilizers, agricultural chemicals and pesticides, under-treated sewage, intensive livestock farming and gasoline powered watercrafts are all culprits. Many of these same factors contributed to a similar situation in Lake Erie. In the 1960s this lake was over-polluted, algae blooms had taken over and the lake was considered dead. Many bird and fish species were dying and recreation was no longer an option on Lake Erie’s shores. But with intensive government restrictions on phosphorous, Lake Erie has now experienced a rebirth and is once again considered a vital lake.

The Lake Erie disaster happened over 50 years ago and only one province over, but clearly no lessons were gleaned. As consumerism has only continued its frantic pace since that time, it is actually surprising that we didn’t reach this crisis point with Lake Winnipeg sooner. Or maybe the warning signs were there, but we chose to ignore them. Because really, it’s difficult for most of us to care about something we were never taught to value in the first place.

Needless to say, the causes are both clear and huge. Individual solutions are important, but systematic and government interventions are also necessary. Individuals can reduce their impact on the lake by using recreational watercrafts with low or no emissions, choose phosphorous-free detergents and fertilizers and do some research on local sewage treatment plants. If your treatment plant needs to be upgraded, contact local government officials. On a more large-scale level, intensive livestock farming near lakes and rivers must be curbed. But small lifestyle changes are really at the heart of changing the fate of the lake.

One of the positive side-effects of this negative situation is that many diverse groups and coalitions are forming in response to this crisis. People who are not normally engaged citizens are feeling compelled to advocate on behalf of the lake. The Lake Winnipeg Foundation consists of a group of concerned citizens who care about the future of Lake Winnipeg. They fundraise to support various solutions to the lake’s problems. The foundation recently partnered with Wildsight, an established group dedicated to protecting wildlife and wild places. Together with the Global Nature Fund, they have established the Living Lakes Network Canada, which is focused on citizen-based stewardship of Canada’s lakes. Making these types of connections strengthens all of the groups involved and increases the amount of proactive solutions achieved.

Research has also become a priority when it comes to Lake Winnipeg and in this respect the Lake Winnipeg Research Consortium was formed. Their primary tasks involve directly assessing Lake Winnipeg’s current state, educating people about the situation and producing reports and recommendations. Their research vessel, the Namao, can be seen docked at the Gimli Harbour when it is not in use by the researchers.

The Lake Winnipeg Stewardship Board was formed by the Government of Manitoba and is approaching the Lake Winnipeg situation much like the Lake Erie situation was addressed. One of its main mandates is to advise the government on how to reduce phosphorous and nitrogen levels in Lake Winnipeg, along with other more innovative plans.

In contrast to these organized groups, there are also many people who know what the issues and the problems are but who feel overwhelmed by the immensity of the situation. A feeling of helplessness and hopelessness has emerged beside the belief that a single individual cannot make a difference in this situation. And too, there are those who have never been near Lake Winnipeg and do not consider it their problem. But recognition of the many solutions to Lake Winnipeg’s problems reveals that individual actions are indeed going to help remedy this situation.

There are those who are simply ignoring the situation. A look at beach culture reveals that few people are changing their beach habits in response to the lake’s pollution. There are days when it is blatantly advisable not to swim in the water. There are warnings on the local news stations and printed in the papers, yet people still flock to the beach in their usual numbers.
And still you see people swimming in the algae-infested water. Few people seem deterred. Is that arrogance or ignorance?

If the British Petroleum oil calamity was not spewing thousands of gallons of crude petroleum every minute before our eyes on live TV for weeks on end, would we have cared as much? Was more action demanded and taken when the oil washed up on shores from the middle of the Gulf of Mexico? On a similar but smaller scale, when the blue-green algae blooms are in the middle of Lake Winnipeg’s north basin and cottagers and beach-goers can’t see it, do people really care? Do we hear the warnings from fishermen who make their living off of the lake and see fish in fewer and fewer numbers each year? Or is it only when the shores of Grand Beach look like pea soup and our day at the beach is interrupted that we begin to acknowledge that there is a problem?

With freshwater composing only 2.5 per cent of the world’s water, it’s time to start thinking outside of ourselves. It has been estimated that half of the world’s population could have difficulty attaining drinking water in the next 25 years. Clearly, there is more at stake here than just a ruined day at the beach.