Saving Lake Winnipeg

Lake Winnipeg is the 10th largest lake in world, but given its size, it is also one of the least studied lakes in the world. This lack of scientific attention is changing as David Suzuki and The Nature of Things take on this troubled lake.

Filmmaker Paul Kemp, who has spent his summers on the shores of Lake Winnipeg, was becoming increasingly concerned with the health of the lake. When Kemp’s two-year-old son unknowingly entered the algae-infested water and emerged with green goop all over his skin, Kemp decided it was time to take a closer look at the situation. The result is Save My Lake, a documentary co-directed and executively produced by Paul Kemp.

The lake’s gigantic algae blooms and signs posted at beaches cautioning possible negative health effects from the water have now made Lake Winnipeg’s problems difficult to ignore. In Kemp’s opinion, many of the lake’s problems can be attributed to not seeing the lake’s warning signs earlier.

“I don’t think anyone recognized for years and decades that something was brewing in those waters, so to speak. Now we’re starting to see, year after year, there’s an issue here and we have to address it. The good thing is the public around Lake Winnipeg is waking up to this. You simply can’t ignore it anymore,” Kemp said in an interview with the Manitoban.

Pleased to see Lake Winnipeg getting national attention with The Nature of Things, Kemp is adamant about the lake being more than just an issue for Manitobans. He sees the lake as a massive example of what is happening to fresh water lakes around the world.

“A lot of the same things that are happening to Lake Winnipeg are happening to all lakes. We have to use this as a harbinger of what can come if you don’t deal with it. Lake Winnipeg’s situation is pretty unique because it is such a huge watershed. It’s four provinces and four states wide. You flush your toilet in Calgary and it’s coming into Lake Winnipeg sooner or later. I hope that in Western Canada, in Saskatchewan and Alberta, that they are paying attention, because the downstream effects of what they do come into Lake Winnipeg,” explained Kemp.

In the process of making this film, Kemp was most surprised to learn how many marshes, nature’s natural filters, have been destroyed. Also known as prairie potholes, it is estimated that up to 70 per cent of Manitoba wetlands have been drained. As a result, water flowing into Lake Winnipeg now has more contaminants.

“Those small little depressions that you would see on farmland have all been drained. Those depressions used to capture water that was flowing off the land in the old days. For over 100 years these have been drained through a series of culverts, gutters and drains that rush the water to the rivers and lakes faster and faster. In the old days, that water would have stayed on the land a lot longer,” said Kemp.

Finding hydro-dams to be another source of Lake Winnipeg’s problems, he was astounded by the extent to which Lake Winnipeg contributes to Manitoba’s economy through hydro-electric power.

“Let’s put this in perspective, Lake Winnipeg is the third largest reservoir in the world after Lake Superior and Lake Victoria. It [hydro-electricity] bottles up the lake. When Manitoba Hydro put up those dams in the 1970s, they did a series of them on the Nelson River because all the water of Lake Winnipeg eventually rushes through the Nelson River to the Hudson Bay. I didn’t realize that the stabilization of the water had profoundly affected the lake in the way it had,” admitted Kemp.

It is Kemp’s hope that Save My Lake will reveal the reality of the decaying state of Lake Winnipeg and will prompt more action to reverse the lake’s deterioration.
“It will probably open eyes to just how complex the problem that we are dealing with is. The actions of humans interconnect with the lake and the lake is sending out a warning call to all of us to get engaged and to recognize — don’t take this lake for granted because there is a big ecological problem sitting on this lake,” said Kemp.

Save My Lake will air on CBC Television’s The Nature of Things on Thursday, March 17 at 8 p.m..