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A Visit With Wonderful People Trying to Save Lake Winnipeg

On July 25/26, I had the honour of visiting the Village of Donnottar, a lovely lake community located on the southwest shore of Lake Winnipeg, forty minutes north of Winnipeg. I was speaking at the Community Awareness Day, guest of Mayor Rick Gamble, a remarkable environmental activist, the local village council and several community organizations. I took part the next day in a Walk for Water that ended with a bbq and concert. I was also looked after with much care by Don and Donna Winstone, a wonderful couple who live right on the lake in this enchanting village.

Water policy expert and Albertan Bob Sandford was there as well as a number of local experts on soil, climate and organic food and the audience – over 200 on a lovely summer day in a small community – learned a lot about Lake Winnipeg. Organizations such as the Lake Winnipeg Foundation, a ten year old non profit that works with all sectors to restore Lake Winnipeg, Aquavist, that certifies municipalities for good water management practices, and Lake Friendly, a community to community public awareness program moving to identify and award communities that protect their lakes, all participated and gave people practical steps they can take to protect and restore their lake.

One presentation and site visit really stood out for me.

A huge concern in Lake Winnipeg is the blue-green algae covering so much of the lake that the blooms can easily be seen by satellite. They are caused by nutrient overload, especially from phosphorus. About 8,000 tonnes of phosphorus enter the lake every year, much of it from factory farms. The algae suck the oxygen out of the lake and, in severe cases, fish and other aquatic life die. Eutrophication is a growing problem in Lake Winnipeg and many other waters systems around the world.

The Donnottar Passive Filter is a green, low energy, low cost, low-tech natural system that effectively reduces the environmental impact of municipal wastewater lagoon effluent. Started as an experiment in 2005, the system uses natural purification processes that occur in wetlands to reduce solids, organics and nutrients such as phosphorus, but maintains a packed, dry filter bed surface.

This filter experiment is unique in that it uses biological and physical processes and plant growth and harvesting to remove phosphorous from the wastewater. The site looks like a meadow and captures the phosphorus for reuse, removing much of it from the water cycle altogether. The pilot project has resulted in reductions of 70% of phosphorous and 60% of nitrogen. Scientists are now testing the site for its ability to remove pesticides, pharmaceuticals and personal care products from wastewater, all using this nature-based system.

Mayor Gamble, who has been a moving force behind the project, says its potential for expansion is enormous. Think of passive filters constructed on all the hog farms that ring the lake.

We had all better act fast, says Bob Sandford, who wrote the book, Saving Lake Winnipeg. Lake Winnipeg is dying, he says. If we do not take the kind of concerted effort that has gone into recovering other lakes destroyed by eutrophication, such as Lake Constance in Europe, this lake will become an open sewer.

Manitobans and Canadians are blessed with water but we are not always taking proper care of it. For two days this summer, however, I had the honour of working with a passionate group of people who are dedicating their lives to protecting and recovering the breathtaking Lake Winnipeg.