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Education and Innovation: Key to Sustaining Lake Winnipeg

Posted on June 26, 2017
Written by Carl Dizon

Despite its natural beauty and significance to Canadians, Lake Winnipeg is in danger of the very Canadians who use it. In recent years, algae bloom levels in Lake Winnipeg have increased. This increase in algal blooms is primarily because of the corresponding increase in phosphorus and nitrogen levels in the lake, which, in turn, is a result of human activities that produce wastewater, fertilizers, and animal wastes. In fact, the significant rise in algae blooms in Lake Winnipeg is so severe that the algae blooms can even be seen from outer space.

Furthermore, the increase in algae blooms can have harmful consequences to Lake Winnipeg and those living near it. Algal blooms can produce neurotoxins that can be more powerful than cobra venom. Additionally, blue-green algae, also known as cyanobacteria, can generate toxins that contribute to liver and respiratory failure in humans and animals. Blue- green algae, specifically, is observable in Lake Winnipeg. In regards to the effects of algae blooms to Lake Winnipeg itself, the blooms can affect the chemical composition of the lake. When algae blooms die, they sink to the bottom and undergo decomposition, a process that can take in oxygen. Lower oxygen levels could then result in an insufficient amount of oxygen available for aquatic life inhabiting the lake.

It is clear that the increase in phosphorus and nitrogen levels in Lake Winnipeg have negative implications on the lake itself and on the organisms that utilize it. A question then pops up in regards to these problems: how can Canadians sustain and revitalize Lake Winnipeg?

Before going on to solutions to Lake Winnipeg’s algae problem, it is important to note that the Red River Basin contributes almost 60 per cent of the phosphorus loads in Lake Winnipeg. Since the Red River Basin contributes more than half of the phosphorus in Lake Winnipeg, treatment efforts should be more focused on the basin. It is also important to note that allegations suggesting that Lake Winnipeg is dying are false. The suggestion that Lake Winnipeg is not dying is observable in findings stating that the south basin of the lake had no hypoxic events within any year besides one station. This suggestion is also observable in the shallow depth of the lake, which inhibits stratification, a pre-condition for hypoxia and anoxia. Nevertheless, it is still important to solve Lake Winnipeg’s algae problem so that allegations suggesting that the lake is dying would not come true.

One possible solution to Lake Winnipeg’s phosphorus and nitrogen levels is the production of nano-enhanced media. In fact, a research project conducted by Steven Safferman, a professor from Michigan State University, and MetaMateria Technologies showed that nano-media, specifically those made with waste iron, can efficiently absorb phosphorus from water. Additionally, nano-media showed no major changes in performance throughout different facilities, indicating nano-media’s flexibility in different experimental sites. Additionally, phosphorus removal rates during the research project were not affected by compounds that might populate different industrial and municipal sources of wastewater. The lack of change in phosphorus removal in industrial and municipal sources, in tandem with the lack of change in the nano-media’s performance throughout various facilities, could prove to be advantageous in Lake Winnipeg. Furthermore, since nano-media is considered cost-effective and reusable, it could be utilized for long periods of time and its manageability would be easier.

Another solution to Lake Winnipeg’s increasing phosphorus and nitrogen levels is the utilization of aquatic macrophytes, specifically Pistia and Eichhornia crassipes. The use of Pistia and Eichhornia crassipes to filter out harmful material from Lake Winnipeg can conveniently be called phytoremediation. Pistia, which can be called water lettuce, is an efficient nutrient remover due to its rapid growth and high biomass potential. What is even more encouraging is that the nutrient removal potential of Pistia increases as the nutrient concentration of an area increases. Since Lake Winnipeg has high concentrations of phosphorus and nitrogen, it can be inferred that Pistia has promising potential in Lake Winnipeg. The same potential can be said for Eichhornia crassipes, which has a higher nutrient removal-capacity than that of Pistia.

More general solutions to Lake Winnipeg’s problems include increasing public awareness about Lake Winnipeg and urging the public to lessen activities that promote the increase of phosphorus and nitrogen. The government of Manitoba could invest in public education programs and public announcements that would increase the awareness of the general populace about the dangerous levels of phosphorus and nitrogen levels in Lake Winnipeg. Additionally, these public awareness programs can introduce ways to help alleviate Lake Winnipeg’s problems. Activities such as reducing animal waste runoff and decreasing the use of phosphate-containing detergents can be promoted by the public awareness campaign. This kind of program would then need the collaboration of both local media outlets and government officials for the proposal to be beneficial for Lake Winnipeg. The local media can circulate newspapers, brochures, signs, and infomercials at a regular basis to ensure that the preservation of Lake Winnipeg will remain in the minds of the locals.

Lake Winnipeg

Furthermore, there are cases in which increasing public awareness has been beneficial for areas of concern. A prime example of successful public awareness programs is the Albury- Wodonga campaign in 1993 that aimed to reduce phosphorus emissions to the Murray-Darling river system. The campaign, organized by the Albury City Council, initiated a community awareness program that received partnerships from neigbouring councils and the Federal Government. The Albury-Wodonga campaign utilized weekly television advertising, newspaper advertising, annual mail letters, and educational programs. In-depth surveys were also conducted to analyze the public’s knowledge of water pollution. By the end of the campaign, phosphorus levels were reduced by 18 per cent with an average of about 112 kilograms per day compared to the benchmark figure which was 142 kilograms per day. Interestingly, the decrease in phosphorus load withstood an increase in population and industry growth during the campaign period. It can be concluded that a comprehensive public education campaign aiming to increase awareness results in a successful decrease of the problems and that targeting the problem at its source can provide long-term benefits to the area of concern.

To successfully decrease algae bloom and maintain low algae bloom population in Lake Winnipeg, the combination of on-site and off-site solutions is desirable. On-site solutions like nano-media and aquatic macrophytes show potential and can be implemented into the Red River Basin to decrease a substantial portion of the phosphorus load in the basin. Meanwhile, off-site solutions like the implementation of a public awareness campaign can provide long-term solutions by influencing locals into decreasing their phosphorus output in Lake Winnipeg. Hopefully, this will allow the public to continue enjoying the beauty of Lake Winnipeg.

Carl Dizon is a student at Sisler High School, Winnipeg School Division.

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