Canada’s third largest freshwater lake in serious trouble
Radolfzell, 2 February 2013: Lake Winnipeg is located in the Canadian province of Manitoba, known as the “Land of 100,000 lakes”. This idyllic abundance of water can’t make up for the fact that the health of the world’s tenth largest lake is in jeopardy. Therefore, on the occasion of World Wetlands Day, the Global Nature Fund (GNF) proclaimed Lake Winnipeg as “Threatened Lake of the Year 2013“.
Increasing Pollution from the Watershed
Lake Winnipeg is about 45 times larger than Lake Constance. That this huge Canadian lake is faced with problems similar to those of lakes in more densely populated countries is hard to believe. Despite relatively low populations in the Lake Winnipeg watershed – about 7.0 inhabitants per sq. km compared to nearly 230 inhabitants per sq. km in Germany – nutrients in agricultural run-off and sewage discharges threaten Lake Winnipeg’s future by stimulating large amounts of blue-green algae that imbalance the lake’s food web and can be toxic to humans. The increasing frequency and severity of flooding associated with climate warming, the drainage of wetlands, and the regulation of water levels are having further negative effects on the lake.
Ways out of the Dilemma
The Lake Winnipeg Foundation (LWF) has been involved in the protection of Lake Winnipeg’s ecosystem since 2006. LWF, in conjunction with the Canadian environmental organization Wildsight, established Living Lakes Network Canada (LLNC) in 2010. The goal of LLNC is to improve the stewardship of Canadian lakes, rivers and wetlands, and to protect them in the long term. To restore Lake Winnipeg, an action plan involving all stakeholders is required. This is a challenging task as the watershed spans four Canadian provinces and four US states. Additionally, in recent years, changes in the environmental policies of the Canadian government have not enhanced ecosystem protection.
Kat Hartwig from Living Lakes Canada emphasizes that “Canadians are asking their government to reinstate environmental legislation that formerly ensured a high level of protection of Canadian lakes and wetlands”. As well, in December 2011, the Minister of Environment Canada, Peter Kent, abandoned the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change. In light of these developments, the restoration of Lake Winnipeg will only be possible if governments, agriculture, industry, environmental organisations, and communities work together.
The Lake Winnipeg catchment, almost one million sq. km, covers the Canadian provinces of Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Ontario as well as the US states of North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota and Montana. Lake Winnipeg is fed by numerous rivers such as the Saskatchewan, Red, Winnipeg and Assiniboine. North and east of Lake Winnipeg, vast forests and lakes dominate the landscape. In addition to Lake Winnipeg being North America’s largest commercial walleye fishery and the world’s third largest hydro reservoir, tourism is economically important for many lakeside communities. The largest impact on the lake has been the explosive increase in hog farming in the Red River Basin. Combined with an increased frequency of flooding in the Red River basin, it has caused phosphorus inputs to almost double since the mid-1990s. A small, but significant contribution is made by municipalities around the lake, which do not treat wastewaters adequately and release phosphorus, which promotes bluegreen algal blooms on Lake Winnipeg.
Besides climate warming, securing clean water is one of humanities major challenges. To draw public attention to the progressive destruction of lakes and wetlands which unfortunately proceeds often unnoticed, the international environmental foundation Global Nature Fund, since 2004, on February 2, International Wetlands Day, has selected a “Threatened Lake of the Year”. In addition, to protect valuable wetland habitats and biodiversity, GNF created the international Living Lakes Network in 1998. Since then, several national networks have been established, including one in Canada.