First Nations Rally to Save Lake Winnipeg From Blue-Green Algae Curse

In 2010, Gord Bluesky, the lands and resources manager for Brokenhead Ojibway Nation, received a disturbing photograph in his inbox.

“One of my community members was at Patricia Beach. It was mid-November,” he told DeSmog Canada. “She sent me a picture of hundreds of dead frogs laying on the shoreline.”

Ever since then, Bluesky — whose community is located on the southern tip of Lake Winnipeg — has been especially concerned about his lake.

“I’ve got little girls. We don’t even take them to the beach any more because it’s just too nasty,” he said.


In 2013, Lake Winnipeg was named the most threatened lake in the world by the Global Nature Fund. The biggest problem is toxic blooms of blue-green algae, sometimes so big they can be seen from space.

“It’s one of the biggest tragedies of Manitoba and of Canada,” Bluesky said.

Last week, 14 First Nations from around Lake Winnipeg gathered for two days to discuss the health of the world’s tenth largest lake. Participants recalled a time when they could see right to the bottom of Lake Winnipeg and scoop water up in their hand and drink it.

“What we wanted to do was to bring in communities to talk about what they’ve been seeing … and how we can collaborate,” Bluesky said.

Saving Lake Winnipeg is a complex challenge, says Marlo Campbell, communications director for the Lake Winnipeg Foundation, in part because the watershed stretches across four Canadian provinces and four American states, home to about seven million people.

“When you flush a toilet in Calgary, that water ends up in Lake Winnipeg,” Campbell told DeSmog Canada. “There’s no one person, no one sector, no one industry to blame. We’re all part of the problem.”

What blue-green algae does to the ecosystem

The problem with blue-green algae is when it dies, it sinks to the bottom of the lake and decomposes, which uses up oxygen, Campbell explained.

“That’s depleting oxygen for all the other things that live in the lake,” she said. “Excessive amounts of algae can actually disrupt the food web.”

That’s especially concerning given Lake Winnipeg is home to a $25 million a year fishing industry.

Then there’s the tourism industry, worth about $100 million a year, that doesn’t benefit from the algae, which Campbell describes as “just plain gross.”

“Lake Winnipeg is actually known for its gorgeous beaches, white, fine sand like you can’t even believe,” Campbell says. “Tourism industries, recreational industries, property values all depend on that.”

Why does the blue-green algae get out of control? Because there’s too much phosphorus entering the lake. There’s phosphorus in fertilizer, but also in livestock waste and human sewage.

While the finger can be pointed at some particularly bad actors (like the North End Water Pollution Control Centre in Winnipeg, which is the fourth largest phosphorous polluter in Canada), the problem is dispersed, with about 50 per cent of the phosphorus that ends up in Lake Winnipeg originating from outside of Manitoba’s borders.

Lake Winnipeg Health Plan pinpoints eight key actions

With that complexity in mind, the Lake Winnipeg Foundation has created a Lake Winnipeg Health Plan that identifies eight key actions to reduce the amount of algae-causing phosphorus reaching Lake Winnipeg. It includes everything from conserving wetlands and the Boreal forest to improving wastewater treatment and promoting agricultural water stewardship.

“There are all sorts of different ways that people can be part of the solution,” Campbell says. “This is a big challenge, but we can fix it.”

Winnipeg’s Centre for Indigenous Environmental Resources teamed up with Mountain Equipment Co-op this summer as part of its Homewaters campaign to help get Canadians involved in amplifying First Nations voices to protect Lake Winnipeg.

“The First Nations have the first-hand experience,” says Tracy Ruta Fuchs, research associate with the centre. “They’ve been living on the lake for as long as they can remember … and they’re using the lake for their food and their cultural ceremonies. They’re key to solutions.”

After last week’s First Nations gathering, community champions were identified to take a lead on protecting Lake Winnipeg.

“I know our communities want to, and all have a big interest, in conserving and protecting and restoring Lake Winnipeg, but we can’t do that by ourselves,” Bluesky says. “We all need to work together.”

This story was made possible through support from Mountain Equipment Co-op as part of its Homewaters campaign, which is dedicated to preserving Canada’s fresh water from coast to coast.

Photo: Copyright Centre for Indigenous Environmental Resources

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