By David Janeson
Manitoba is a beautiful place to call home. If you’ve never been up this way, you’re welcome any time.
For the many thousands of outdoorsy visitors who join us each year, Manitoba’s defining characteristic is its vast reserve of fresh water. We have so many lakes, in fact, that some 90 percent remain nameless.
Alas, not all is well on Manitoba’s (mostly) placid waters. Human activity is affecting the quality and biodiversity of our waters, and likely will for years to come.
“The good news is that we can all do our part to reduce our impact on the environment — but, first, we must understand the threats at hand.” — David Janeson
To be fair, the agricultural runoff affecting water quality in southern and central Manitoba isn’t all — or even primarily — the local farming community’s fault. Much of the blame lies south of the border, in the fertile canola, beet, and soybean fields of Minnesota and North Dakota. Phosphates, pesticides, and other nutrient-rich pollutants run off poorly maintained fields there into tributaries of the mighty Red River, which then flows north into Lake Winnipeg and beyond.
The resultant algae blooms create locally anoxic conditions that threaten native fish populations, while harmful organic compounds render some waters unsafe for swimming or unfiltered consumption.
The zebra mussel is here, probably to stay. Ironically, invasive aquatic species like zebra and quagga mussels are fantastic filters, polishing waters they’ve infested to a sky-blue shine. But their success comes at the expense of native species, which tend to be more vulnerable to predation and other environmental controls. Invasive mussels can also damage boat engines, docks, water intake and outtake pipes, and other infrastructure along Manitoba’s lakes.
Climate change is perhaps the single greatest threat to Manitoba’s lakes and rivers. Unfortunately, it’s also the most abstract. Mounting evidence suggests that rising water and air temperatures — most visible in the ever-lengthening ice-free season — disrupt breeding cycles and threaten some of the province’s most charismatic creatures, including moose and beaver.
Litter and Refuse
Remember the old saying: pack in, pack out. Most outdoor visitors respect Manitoba’s campgrounds and waterways, but even the occasional litterbug can have a big impact. Lately, environmental advocates have turned their attention to a new, less visible source of pollution: the plastic “microbeads” found in some popular beauty and personal care products. These tiny particles threaten smaller aquatic species, further straining our lakes and rivers.
Hydroelectric generating stations produce much of Manitoba’s electricity. The province has more than a dozen of these low-carbon facilities, most on the Winnipeg River and its tributaries.
That Manitoba can generate so much electricity without meaningfully contributing to climate change is an unmitigated good. But, like all large industrial facilities, hydroelectric power stations exert real influence on surrounding ecosystems.
Dams hamper the free movement of fish and other aquatic species, stressing riverine food chains. They also affect the free flow of water, interrupting seasonal cycles to which shorebirds and beavers have become accustomed. They’re better than the coal-fired generating capacity they replace — but let’s have no illusions that they’re impact-free.
Are you doing your part to reduce your impact on water quality and biodiversity?
David Janeson owns Gull Harbour Marina, a seasonal lakeside resort on beautiful Hecla Island, Manitoba