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Citizen scientists to help pinpoint phosphorus hotspots to tame Lake Winnipeg algae blooms

Written by Kirsten Earl McCorrister, Programs Director, Lake Winnipeg Foundation

In recent years, Lake Winnipeg, which has an extensive watershed of one million square kilometres, has been plagued by algae blooms that form annually due to extremely high phosphorus loading from extensive agriculture production and outdated wastewater treatment facilities. And though those algae blooms are the most pressing threat to Lake Winnipeg, impacting water quality, people and wildlife, it has been challenging to pinpoint exactly how and where the phosphorous is entering the system.

Project lead Mike Stainton tests water on Devil’s Creek as part of LWF’s CBM initiative. © Kirsten Earl McCorrister

Project lead Mike Stainton tests water on Devil’s Creek as part of LWF’s CBM initiative. © Kirsten Earl McCorrister

This past spring, in an effort to solve this mystery, the Lake Winnipeg Foundation launched the first stage of a new community-based monitoring (CBM) initiative to collect water quality data.

Establishing and supporting a strong, collaborative CBM network that will eventually employ dozens of citizen scientists is no small task. We knew that before we recruited volunteers we would need to define our protocols and understand how all the processes would work. We used 2016 as a test year, working closely with trusted partners in two conservation districts and an established student monitoring program.

Additionally, Lake Winnipeg Foundation established a CBM steering committee, provided strategic direction to grow and maintain the CBM network infrastructure, established a community lab, and provided tools and training for the on-the-ground partners within the sub-watersheds of the Red River Valley.

 Chris Randall, a technician for the Seine/Rat River Conservation District tests Joubert Creek as part of LWF’s CBM initiative. © Selena Randall

Chris Randall, a technician for the Seine/Rat River Conservation District tests Joubert Creek as part of LWF’s CBM initiative. © Selena Randall

The data generated from this initiative will ensure we make smart, science-based decisions to address the threat of phosphorus loading head-on. As the programs director for Lake Winnipeg Foundation, I had the pleasure of working alongside some remarkable scientists and conservation district staff as they did the hard work of determining common protocols, taking water samples, meeting with community members and analyzing results. Their expertise has been integral in creating this new CBM program.

Two members of Lake Winnipeg Foundation’s Science Advisory Council – Mike Stainton, a retired DFO scientist, and Dr. Greg McCullough, a research scientist at the University of Manitoba – played a key role in leading the program. Both have studied Lake Winnipeg and its watershed extensively through their careers. Mike, Greg and their colleagues on the CBM steering committee share the concern that we don’t know enough about the sources of phosphorus causing algae blooms.

“Knowing the Red River Valley is the major source of phosphorus entering Lake Winnipeg is a start, but it doesn’t tell you where you should begin to change things,” Mike said. “Some areas matter a lot more than others. Knowing the areas that matter will allow scarce resources to be used in a focused way.”

Project lead Mike Stainton works with student volunteers from Brokenhead Ojibway Nation on LWF’s CBM initiative. © Kirsten Earl McCorrister

Project lead Mike Stainton works with student volunteers from Brokenhead Ojibway Nation on LWF’s CBM initiative. © Kirsten Earl McCorrister

That’s where CBM comes in. We have designed this CBM program to complement and enhance the current provincial monitoring program, an effort run by the Province of Manitoba for the past four decades. Through collective action we are generating more timely localized data that can pinpoint phosphorus hotspots and help to restore and protect Lake Winnipeg through research, public education, stewardship and collaboration.

“The greatest barrier to collecting phosphorus information at the necessary spatial and temporal scale is the cost of travelling to and from sampling sites,” Mike explained. “CBM volunteers live and care about the waters in their own backyards, and overcome this geographical barrier.”

Working with the Seine-Rat River and LaSalle Redboine Conservation Districts and school-based South Central Eco Institute for this pilot season, the Lake Winnipeg Foundation trained conservation district staff and tested standardized monitoring protocols developed by Mike and Greg. In the 2017 season we will be building a network of 10 to 20 volunteers who will perform the sampling. We will also be developing an educational program so that students and teachers can participate in monitoring our waters.

In 2016, participants collected approximately 200 water samples during the spring melt and after severe summer storms, during which high waters flush the most phosphorus into our lakes and rivers. These samples were analyzed and Lake Winnipeg Foundation science advisors shared data back to community partners in an accessible manner. The results are already beginning to pinpoint the phosphorus hotspots where partners can target their interventions. We’ll also be sharing data online through the Lake Winnipeg Basin Information Network, an open-access online hub, allowing all the participants the opportunity to better understand and take action for the health of Manitoba’s beloved lakes.  

In late October, I gathered with 25 stakeholders from government, academia, non-profits, education institutions and First Nations to discuss successes and findings from this pilot season. Collectively we began to formulate plans for 2017, including integrating an educational component, finding dedicated volunteers to participate and determining the best way to broaden the program into new areas of Manitoba.

By taking an approach to community-based monitoring that is strategic, inclusive and collaborative, Lake Winnipeg Foundation is ensuring that this program’s primary goal of providing credible data that informs research and policy priorities can be attained.

Since 2014, WWF’s Loblaw Water Fund supports critical projects that protect and restore freshwater ecosystems across the country. Loblaw Water Fund grantees — including conservation authorities, waterkeeper groups and First Nations — deliver tangible results that help improve freshwater health in Canada in several ways. The fund is supported through partial proceeds from Loblaw’s charge-for-plastic shopping bag program, which has eliminated more than eight billion plastic shopping bags from Loblaw banner stores nationally since 2007. The 2017 Loblaw Water Fund application period closes on December 16, 2016. Visit wwf.ca/waterfund to apply.