© Stornoway Productions

By Paul Kemp

It was on one of those marvellous and sunny beach days last August long weekend that I found myself in a situation that I had never experienced before, and one I hope not to replicate soon. There I was, with an underwater HD film camera in hand, thigh deep (quite literally) in green, smelly goop. A cascade of thick green algae was slamming into the shoreline of “my beach”— Victoria Beach, on beautiful Lake Winnipeg.

Victoria Beach is certainly one of Canada’s finest cottage areas, and many people like me refer to it as “theirs” after spending a lifetime on the lake.  I have spent the past 35-plus summers enjoying VB, and I still love it. But this time was different.

No one, including me, had ever seen anything like the green invasion that, on this day, was taking over a huge swath of the 10th largest lake on the planet. I was there with my award-winning cinematographer, Barry Lank (a fellow VB resident), and we couldn’t believe our luck, and horror, in capturing this ecological deluge on film. It was an odd feeling for both of us. We were feeling almost giddy that we could film this green attack with such intimacy for the film I was commissioned to produce for CBC’s The Nature of Things, but on the flip side we also felt intense guilt, almost disgust, with what this meant for the place we have both loved for decades. 

What the heck is happening to great Lake Winnipeg?

It is a question that didn’t even cross my mind until about 3 years ago when I was walking down the beach with my 3 year old son, James. One day James was frolicking in the water enjoying a regular, beautiful beach day; the next day he came out of the shallow water covered up to his neck in thick green algae. He was not happy that I wouldn’t allow him to go back in, and it took me about 15 minutes just to scrape the caked algae off of him. Was this algae OK for a little kid to come in contact with? Other kids were swimming in the water that day—it couldn’t be that bad, could it? I was familiar with the recent beach closing and warnings, and I had noticed the eroded beaches and flooded marshes, but what did all these disparate pieces of evidence mean for Lake Winnipeg…or people like me?

As I have spent much of the past 17 years as a TV and film producer, writer and director digging up information and

 telling stories, it wasn’t hard for me to discern that this was an issue worth exploring.  So, in my spare time, I pieced together all the written evidence on Lake Winnipeg I could, made calls to the scientists who were on the lake’s front-lines, and met with the people often ignored in debates about the lake, and its surprisingly enormous watershed. It only took a few months to realize that I had a great story on my hands, and what got the ball rolling was a chance casual dinner with the commissioning editor of The Nature of Things, Michael Allder, where he asked what I was working on. He couldn’t believe his ears about Lake Winnipeg. Within months I was commissioned to “get the science on this story”.

© Stornoway Productions

It would be foolish to write up everything I learned while filming this documentary with my co-director Jeff Newman (a great Winnipeg-based director); but I thought I could tease you with these top 10 facts:  

 1. Satellite photos have revealed that “algae blooms” have often covered over 15,000 square kilometres of the lake. In 2006 the whole lake, nearly 25,000 sq/ km, was covered. That is a lot of green goop.

 2. Lake Winnipeg is now the most nutrient rich and chlorophyll-laden lake of the top 10 lakes in the world; by far.

 3. The fear now is that series of algae blooms could lead to massive oxygen-depleted “dead zones” throughout the lake (due to the algae dying, drifting to the bottom and decomposing while sucking up the oxygen of the lake). This could be the death knell for fish and aquatic life that swim through a dead zone.

4. The algae also have the potential to turn “toxic”, even deadly to dogs and people (children!) if ingested.  Many other lakes across the planet are facing similar plights.

5. An analysis of Netley-Libau Marsh at the south entrance of Lake Winnipeg, North America’s largest inland coastal marsh at 260 square kilometres, has shown the marsh’s vegetative size (and mix of plant-life) has been reduced from 50 to 90% since the 1920s due to flooding. The loss of waterfowl, and importantly, its cleansing function for the lake has been decimated.

6. Nutrients are now rushing into the lake at a great speed. It is estimated that the equivalent of 544,000 bags of lawn fertilizer are dumped into Lake Winnipeg from Southern Manitoba alone— each year. (This research was done by Ducks Unlimited at Broughton Creek).

7. At 1,000,000 square kilometres— and 4 provinces and 4 US states wide— Lake Winnipeg’s watershed is larger than that of the 5 Great Lakes. Its problems are far from local.

8. Over 70% of the micro-marshes in Lake Winnipeg’s watershed, called prairie potholes, have been drained (lost).  Water is rushing untreated to lake’s tributaries faster than ever.

9. 90% of the phosphorus run-off (an algae accelerant) to Lake Winnipeg now comes off the land during the spring melt—a major change from the past.

10. Manitoba Hydro’s use of Lake Winnipeg as an electricity producing reservoir is now the 3rd largest such reservoir in the world (behind Lake Superior and Lake Victoria).  The bottling up of the lake by Manitoba Hydro, and the stabilization of its waters, has profoundly affected water-flows, and has led to an increase in the capturing of algae producing agents inside the lake.

So there you go…and there is much more to find out about. So watch the film, get involved in the lake’s solutions, and

© Stornoway Productions

 in the near term, when an algae bloom hits, keep the kids on shore.

Paul Kemp is the Producer, Writer, and Co-Director of Save My Lake.

Please watch SAVE MY LAKE online, and post your reflections and reactions here; we’d love to know what you think.  

Tags: , , , , , , ,

2 Responses to “SAVE MY LAKE”

  1. Tim Morris April 6, 2011 at 10:26 pm #

    These are scary facts Paul. Thanks for shining a light on these problems and encouraging us all to get involved in finding the solutions.

  2. David Dekker March 3, 2012 at 9:14 am #

    “Patching the Surface”

    Just recently watch the documentary & found it quite off-putting. The problem truly has escalated & poses a great threat to the future of that freshwater basin. Now, this is a potential approach that came to my mind on how to take on this environmental state of emergency… How practical the idea may be… I don’t know, but here it is…

    Collect all the excess green algae by skimming it off the lake, then turn the algae into something “environmental” (of course!)… Biofuel?… Fertilizer? (Recycle into the very land that is part of this problem?)… Possible other solutions?… ?

    That lake is a piece of this planet’s lifeline & my hopes go out to the survival of something we all truly take advantage of!

Leave a Reply

[Read our comments policy here.We reserve the right to remove comments that are inappropriate.]