Lake Winnipeg Series

Episode 1


The story of Lake Winnipeg needs a better telling. It deserves better than the lackadaisical stewardship it has received. It craves more than the news release-driven reporting which typifies this — and most — environmental stories. Many people want to know how to adjust their lives so that the lake can flourish. We want to know how the lake can once again become more than a managed aquaculture project.

Eighteen months ago I started working on this piece about the lake. I wanted to answer three questions:

  • What ’s the state of the lake now?
  • How did it get this way?
  • What’s being done to change things?

Those questions still need answers and to find them, I need your help. Over the weeks ahead Dispatches will be posting the interviews I have conducted with the “usual suspects”. I am hoping that by putting this all out there as ‘raw’ material then together we can hone a compelling narrative. Call it a co-creation, or collaborative journalism.

The lake needs people who can swim together towards a broader understanding of what constitutes health. This body of water cries out for respect for who and what it is, regardless of its ‘services’ to humanity. We benefit because the lake is whole. A step towards that renewal is to write a new story.

Wilful Ignorance

Episode 2 with Vicki Burns


Vicki Burns is well-known in environmental and animal health circles. For more than 14 years she was the executive director of the Winnipeg Humane Society. Now she is director of the Save Lake Winnipeg Project where she increases public awareness of the crisis facing the Lake Winnipeg Watershed. She is also associated with Hogwatch Manitoba, campaigners for major changes to the hog industry in the province, commonly thought to be a contributor to lake pollution.

Burns was my first interview for this project. She offers an overview of some of the problems affecting the lake and proposes ways to make changes that might improve lake health.

This is an edited interview which removes some of the non-essential chatter and most of my questions (since I wasn’t mic’d I wasn’t especially audible). Apologies for the background noise; when we started the interview in Marpeck Commons at Canadian Mennonite University in Winnipeg we were largely alone. But the area around us soon filled with boisterous students.



No Political Courage

Episode 3 with Bill Barlow


William (Bill) Barlow was involved in small town politics for decades. He also served on bigger stages and for years was the chair of the Lake Winnipeg Stewardship Board. That group was tasked by Manitoba’s Minister of Water Stewardship to produce a report about the state of the lake, which was presented in December 2006. It was a hard hitting document with 135 recommendations, all of which were quickly accepted by the provincial government.

But not much happened. So, three years later, Barlow’s board wrote a follow-up. If you translated that second report from its careful diplomatic language, what it was saying was: “what the hell…?”. In what passes as strong language from a careful politician like Barlow, he concluded the Message from the Chair of the second report in an unambiguous statement. “It’s time to go further than just thinking about action; the time for implementing action is now. We’ve only just begun to reverse what we have done.”

read more…

Not Just Farming

Episode 4 with David Lobb


Dr. David Lobb has a just-the-facts-jack way of speaking. Forthright, convincing and understandable despite the complexity of the topic. So what does a soil scientist from the University of Manitoba have to say about the state of a lake? Quite a lot, it seems.

Many researchers focus on phosphorus in the waters of Lake Winnipeg as a growth accelerant for the algae, including the toxic blue-green variety. The quest for them — and others — is to discover where that P is coming from and then design strategies for how to reduce it.

Lobb sources it to agricultural watersheds, but not necessarily just from fertilized and manured cropland. He points a finger at the vegetation and challenges a conventional understanding that the phosphorus in waterways is in a particulate form and associated with sediment from eroded soil. He says that’s not the case on the prairies.

After this office interview with Lobb last year he took me out on the land to see the issues he studies first-hand. Sadly the audio recorded in the field did not turn out well so this is what we have.


Fixing the Kidneys

Episode 5 with Steve Strang

Steve Strang is the former mayor of St. Clements (a rural municipality around the south basin of Lake Winnipeg) and is now the executive director of the Red River Basin Commission. In this informative interview he talks about some of the issues troubling thelake and offers some solutions.

He also explains the – at times – complicated geography of the Netley-Libau Marsh, the largest coastal wetlands in North America and the damaged ‘kidneys’ of Lake Winnipeg.


N or P? 

Episode 6 with Gordon Goldsborough


Dr. Gordon Goldsborough studies coastal wetlands, which includes the swampy areas along the southern shores of lakes Manitoba and Winnipeg. In this comprehensive interview he brings us closest to the actual lake, especially in to the troubled waters of Netley-Libau Marsh, the damaged ‘kidneys’ where the Red River finishes its journey.

Goldsborough, an associate professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Manitoba, helps us understand what’s happening in those shallow waters and what it means farther north in the lake itself. He offers insight into his research and ideas as to what can be done to reduce the pressures on the lake.

And in a departure from the view among most Lake Winnipeg scientists, he doesn’t agree with the orthodoxy that phosphorus is the primary cause of high algae growth. Goldsborough says that nitrogen is equally important. He cites his research in shallow water rather than in much deeper lakes, typical of the Experimental Lakes Area (the ground zero of many scientists active in issues of lake health) and shows that both N and P are culprits in what’s going on.



Stop Pointing Fingers

Episode 7 with Les McEwan


Les McEwan lives about an hour south of Winnipeg where he farms. For years he raised hogs but now he’s growing grain. He is chairman of the Deerwood Soil and Water Management Association, which works with farmers and researchers in his area to find innovations and better ways to grow food. He’s also a director of the Lake Winnipeg Foundation, a lobby group that advocates for lake health. McEwan has as deep roots in research as he does in practice.

He also has some interesting ideas on ways that agriculture can thrive but also reduce its impact on the land and water. One of the key points he makes is that we have so radically changed the prairie landscape that it’s hardly surprising that Lake Winnipeg is under pressure.



Political Failure

Episode 8 with Michael McKernan 


Impassioned, restless, tall, angular and full of energy. Michael McKernan has spent his life mixing scientific rigour, robust field work and an enduring belief that we can do better. He’s retired now but for decades he ran consulting firms that specialized in environmental management projects. He was in the rooms where decisions were made in Manitoba, decisions that we all live with today, for better and worse. McKernan can often be scathing about how slowly things change and especially how easily politicians bow to powerful forces.

McKernan’s interview is long but worth the time. He’s forthright and brings fascinating history and insight to this project. He’s not afraid of the answers to tough questions. Once you’ve heard what he has to say let me know what stands out for you.

Back to the Future

Episode 9 with Hank Venema


Like a lot of engineers Hank Venema is forceful, loud and outgoing. And on the day we spoke in his office in downtown Winnipeg he was restless too. As a water resources engineer with a doctorate in systems design engineering it’s busy at the environmental consulting firm where he works.

His knowledge isn’t limited to small scale projects across the Prairies. He also knows a lot about large bodies of water after his years working at the experimental lakes research project… where so many water specialists cut their teeth.

Venema doesn’t mince words about how Lake Winnipeg got in to mess it is in the first place. He says that if we hadn’t done everything we could to get water off the prairie as fast as possible, we might not have the same levels of eutrophication in the lake. But there’s no point in blaming the past. Nothing can be done about what was done. Instead, says Venema, we have to look forward and innovate.

And in words you don’t often hear from engineers, he says hugely expensive engineering projects might not be the answer. Instead, what if we put a price on phosphorous and reduced the amount that ends up in the lake. Couple that with ongoing efforts to return the prairie to something like its original condition, and we might have the workings of a solution.

Whatever happens, he says there’s no time to waste. Climate change, an overdue multi-year drought and continued bad practices mean that the future looks dark for the lake.

Is the Lake a Person?

Episode 10 with Lorraine Land


Lorraine Land is an aboriginal lawyer who works with First Nations across Canada. She spends a lot of time on land issues and of course that extends into the practical details of safe guarding nature and what it means to act as an environmental steward.

Because of that she has a lot of front line experience digging into the weeds of what it means to live in harmony with nature rather than in opposition. But she’s also thought about this is the wider sense. Does every resource development or treaty or land protection issue always start and end in the specific. Or are there principals and broader concepts that could make things better, cut through the fog and perhaps even speed up negotiations?

read more…


Finding the Lake’s Voice

Episode 11 with Laura Lynes


Today we have another show in the Lake Winnipeg series. I’m speaking with Laura Lynes who works on the front lines of climate change and sustainability. She is the president of the Resilience Institute based in Canmore, Alberta. It helps communities build capacity to adapt to climate change.

Lynes took her post graduate law degree at the Centre for Environmental Law and Governance at the University of Strathclyde, in Scotland. The title of her dissertation is intriguing. It’s called:  Climate Change Law and Colonialism: Legal Standing of Three Rivers and a Hypothetical Case of Bison Personhood in Canada. In 22 pages Lynes argues that bison, especially those that remain on the Canadian prairies, should be made persons in the eyes of the law.

After reading the paper I wanted her insight on the concept of the rights of nature, or earth jurisprudence. Tapping her knowledge might make it easier to figure out if granting Lake Winnipeg legal standing could be a way to break through the inertia of decades of good intention but lousy follow through. If the lake was recognized as a person would it do anything to improve the health of the lake?