Winnipeg residents used to flock to the lake that carries their city’s name, but not so much now.
Huge areas of blue-green algae cover much of the northern part of the lake most years. Canadian experts say this is happening in a large part because Minnesota and North Dakota cities and farms dump phosphorus and other nutrients algae love into the Red River as it flows north between the states.
Canadians are looking for solutions. Those solutions are the same ones that can help North Dakota and Minnesota, Manitoba Premier Greg Selinger told a Thursday forum about Red River issues.
Manitoba officials used the forum to float an idea about an accord among states and provinces in the Lake Winnipeg watershed to work toward reducing introduction of nutrients. While most of the land that drains into the lake is in Canada, more than half of the nutrients feeding the algae growth come from the two states.
The Shared Waters, Shared Responsibility forum, sponsored by the Canadian government, brought together experts from both counties and about 75 others at the University of Minnesota.
“Phosphorus levels are too high,” Professor Greg McCullough of the University of Manitoba said. “We need action now.”
Gord Mackintosh, Manitoba minister of conservation and water stewardship, said he wants an accord that could include the two national governments, to lead to reducing phosphorus and other nutrient introduction into the Red River, which empties into Lake Winnipeg.
The agreement, which could set standards about how much phosphorus is allowed in the river, may take two or three years to write, the minister said.
“If we ignore it, we will be ignoring it at our peril,” Selinger said.
Selinger said he has yet to discuss an accord with governors of the two states, but said he and North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple have developed a good relationship while working on Devils Lake flood issues.
In an interview, Selinger said that Americans near the Red River want to clean their water, too, so he does not expect people to look at the Red River Basin accord effort as something just to help Lake Winnipeg.
The premier praised Minnesota for its attempt to remove phosphorus from detergent and said that is an example for others.
Manitoba has started its own effort, Selinger said, which angered farmers who need to reduce manure runoff and cities that must cut phosphorus coming from sewage treatment plants.
The north-flowing Red River contributes 62 percent of the phosphorus that ends up in Lake Winnipeg.
Floods that have become common along the Red contribute to nutrient movement to the north, experts said.
Executive Director Lance Yohe of the Red River Basin Commission said more rain is falling in the Red River basin. More rain means more runoff, he said, which transports nutrients to Lake Winnipeg algae.
The good news is that work to prevent floods also should slow nutrient movement north, even though water quality is not as high a priority as preventing floods.
“An added value” is how Ron Harnack of the Red River Water Management Board said of flood control work’s contribution to reducing the algae problem.
Part of the flood solution is to hold back water. When that water is kept away from the Red, phosphorus is filtered out.
A five-year farm bill, awaiting action in Congress, contains “a significant” amount of money earmarked to build water retention facilities, according to Allison Myhre, spokeswoman for U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn.
Building a marsh is an example of how water can be kept away from the river.
Phosphorus comes from many sources, including livestock manure and crop fertilizers.
Much of the phosphorus problem comes from human waste. The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency is working with the state’s 14 largest city sewage treatment plants in the Red River basin to reduce phosphorus release, Assistant MPCA Commissioner Rebecca Flood said.
A North Dakota official said he needed to be the “Grinch” in discussions about the proposed accord.
David Glatt of the North Dakota Health Department said that as governments discover they would be forced to give up authority, “you are really going to run up against a brick wall quick.”
With various governments taking action on their own, Mackintosh said, now “it is time to tie it all together.”
“We’re at the tipping point,” he said. “Let’s get going.”