Over the last twenty years, it has been scientifically demonstrated that the increased area of algal blooms and growing presence of toxic cyanobacteria in Lake Winnipeg are a warning of larger eco-hydrological problems not just in the immediate Lake Winnipeg Basin, a 1 million sq/km watershed, in the central Great Plains region which extends over four Canadian provinces and four American states. Major spring flooding throughout the region has been increasing in the past decade setting new records. Climatic influences are likely to exacerbate already existing problems. Associated with this is large scale land-use changes and altered hydrologic patterns and the fact that recent research shows that the spring floods create a wash effect flushing nitrogen and phosphorous to Lake Winnipeg.
The floods of 2011 cost the Province of Manitoba alone a billion dollars and North Dakota and Saskatchewan costs are in the same range. There is growing concern that the cost of persistent ongoing flooding and related damage may in time be substantial enough in this region to make it difficult to sustain prosperity as we know it today and still keep population centres, national transportation systems and other crucial infrastructure in functional repair.
The fear is that the economies of southern Manitoba and areas in the Red River Basin in the United States may ultimately be so damaged by these combined ecological, hydrological and climatic influences as to impoverish them. A 500 year level flood would cost $11-13 billion dollars in the United States portion of the Red River basin alone.
There is considerable public awareness of the deteriorating state of Lake Winnipeg but the concerns are largely focused locally on environmental problems. The increasing vulnerability of the central Great Plains to extreme weather events, however, is quickly becoming a threat not just to the environment but to the economic well-being of the entire region. In order to protect the existing economy of the region, it will be necessary to develop agricultural systems that are more resilient to extreme weather events. In order, however, to preserve the economic future of southern Manitoba and surrounding areas the region will have to be re-engineered from a hydrological perspective. Such bold action could have dual benefits. While clearly required to protect the economy of the Great Plains, hydrological reengineering of the region is likely the only means by which there will be any hope of restoring Lake Winnipeg to any semblance of its original health.
Important Pieces Are Already In Place
Many important elements required to address this problem are already in place. Highly qualified and very resourceful people are committed to understanding and acting upon the Lake Winnipeg pollution situation. The Government of Manitoba is committed to addressing the problem. Good science exists and, despite devastating federal cut-backs to government science programming, the necessary research capacity still exists at the university level as well as on the lake. The Lake Winnipeg Foundation has orchestrated considerable public awareness. There is solid, on the ground commitment at the community level. There is support from Mayors and Reeves in the Lake Winnipeg area as well as solid support from the Manitoba Chambers of Commerce that has tabled a strategic direction to its members at the most recent AGM and passed by acclamation.
Programs like Lake Friendly are mobilizing communities and cottage owners. The potential for technical solutions are being put forward by groups like the International Institute for Sustainable Development while at the same time the seeds of collaborative resolution on a broader regional basis are growing through the international work of the Red River Basin Commission. While this is an impressive start, a number of crucial partners required to address this regional threat have yet to be encouraged to the table.
Your Manitoba Chambers of Commerce is working diligently with a number of organizations that are well known and highly respected to facilitate a way forward in the very near future. While we value the science and studies – we have heard loud and clear from people that the time for action is what is now.