Conservation Districts Touted As Helping To Cure Lake Winnipeg

Delegates attending the Manitoba Conservation District Association’s annual meeting here heard repeatedly that the solution to Lake Winnipeg’s pollution lies in their own fields and streams.

Conservation districts are the first line of defence in cleaning up Lake Winnipeg because they manage the watersheds where the problem starts, Harold Foster, Manitoba Conservation Districts Association chair says.

Because Manitoba’s conservation districts cover most of the province’s agricultural land, they are uniquely positioned to help protect the lake, whose watershed also includes most of the province, Foster said during an interview at the association’s recent annual convention.

“If people think the problems of Lake Winnipeg are south of Lake Winnipeg, they’re not. They’re out on the land,” he said. “To stop those nutrients from getting into the lake, that has to be done here.”


The 500 registrants at the MCDA convention heard repeated references to Lake Winnipeg during their three-day gathering.

Presenters with PowerPoint slides frequently documented water quality problems in the lake and pointed to solutions for them.

Those include watershed management, an important mandate for Manitoba’s 18 conservation districts.

“Conservation districts are in a perfect place to be a big part of correcting the problem,” said Ryan Canart, Upper Assiniboine River Conservation District manager.

With its sheer size and extensive influence, Lake Winnipeg dominates all water quality issues in Manitoba.

According to the Lake Winnipeg Research Consortium, it is the 10th largest freshwater lake by area in the world with the second- largest watershed in Canada, which includes four provinces and two U.S. states.


The watershed contains 5.5 million people, 80 per cent of whom live in eight urban centres. It also houses 20 million livestock, whose numbers have expanded greatly over the last 15 years.

Lake Winnipeg also supports a $15-million inland fishery, a $100-million tourism and recreation industry and hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of Manitoba Hydro export power sales.

But its health has declined since the 1960s when phosphorus levels in the water began rising dramatically.

Sources of phosphorus included municipal sewage waste water, leaky septic systems, dishwasher and laundry soap, fertilizer and livestock manure – all of which drain into tributaries and rivers and eventually into the lake itself.

Phosphorus added to a lake produces blue-green algal blooms through eutrophication. As these blooms increase in size, they draw oxygen from the water. They can also produce neurotoxins which can endanger fish, wildlife and even people.

The Manitoba government moved to control nutrient loading in the lake when massive algal blooms periodically began covering much of the north basin.


Foster said conservation districts can also play their part with projects to slow down water runoff, store water on the land and deal with overland flooding issues.

Vicki Burns, representing Community Foundations of Canada, agreed conservation districts can contribute to the health of Lake Winnipeg.

“Conservation districts are on the ground doing the type of watershed protection work that is absolutely essential in order to restore the health of the lake,” said Burns, who co-ordinates community foundations in the Lake Winnipeg watershed.

Burns says she speaks to community groups in Saskatchewan and Alberta, which are also in the watershed. She doesn’t preach to them about Lake Winnipeg; instead she encourages them to focus on their local water issues.

“If you fix your own backyard and the environment around you, that is all connected to the health of Lake Winnipeg.”

Hank Venema of the International Institute of Sustainable Development, said science has ways to capture phosphorus before it reaches the lake, harvest it and recycle it into biofuels.

Not only does this benefit water quality, it also helps the local economy, said Venema, who directs sustainable resource management for the Winnipeg-based IISD.

“This is where rural revitalization comes in.” [email protected]


Ifpeoplethinkthe problemsofLake Winnipegaresouth ofLakeWinnipeg, they’renot.”


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