mi-lake-algae

Satellite photo of Lake Winnipeg in August 2010 shows algae blooms that can cover the lake with over 15,000 square kilometers of green goop. ((CBC))

The Manitoba government is imposing new rules on hog farms to protect water quality in Lake Winnipeg.

The province said it will ban any hog industry expansion that doesn't use advanced lagoons or other leading-edge manure treatment.

"We want the industry to be able to function as a hog industry. But we want safe environmental practices," Premier Greg Selinger said at a news conference on Thursday.

"And the first thing to do is to deal with the spreading issues, then we can work with the industry on issues of fertilizer as well."

Legislation will be brought in to ban winter spreading of manure, he said.

It's all part of a three-pronged plan unveiled Thursday to reduce phosphorous levels in Lake Winnipeg by 50 per cent.

"The stakes are too high and the time to take action is now," said Selinger.

"Lake Winnipeg is one of the largest freshwater lakes in the world and it's in trouble. We must take the steps necessary to preserve the lake and make it safe for generations of Manitobans to enjoy."

'Lake Winnipeg is one of the largest freshwater lakes in the world and it's in trouble.'—Premier Greg Selinger

Selinger unveiled the plan to save the lake following the release on Tuesday of a report that clearly shows the lake is at risk.

The five-year study, commissioned by the province, recommends a 50 per cent reduction in phosphorous levels to reverse regular algae blooms and return the lake to a pre-1990 state.

The report shows phosphorous levels in Lake Winnipeg are three times higher than they were in Lake Erie when that lake was described as dead. The call to cut phosphorous levels in the Lake is echoed in the work of Dr. Greg McCullough of the University of Manitoba.

"The facts couldn't be clearer. The health of Lake Winnipeg can't return to what it once was without a significant cut in phosphorous levels and there's simply no time to delay," said McCullough.

Increased phosphorous is entering the lake from livestock farming, pollution from cities and wetland loss.

Modernizing sewage treatment

In addition to more strict regulations for the hog industry, the two other parts of the plan include modernizing the City of Winnipeg's north end sewage treatment plant and restoring natural filters to protect Manitoba's wetlands.

But the government is backing down from forcing the City of Winnipeg to cut nitrogen from its waste water.

Selinger said new scientific studies suggest phosphorus is the key problem, not nitrogen.

Mayor Sam Katz has long fought the nitrogen plan, complaining the government's requirement to remove it from sewage was costly and unnecessary.

Still, the province will still require Winnipeg to upgrade the sewage treatment plant, leaving the door open to controlling nitrogen levels down the road.

That means changing the system to one involving biological nutrient removal, Selinger said.

"A plant equipped for full biological nutrient removal of phosphorus and ammonia is a great advantage as it can be cheaply and easily converted to remove nitrogen should this be required," he said.

Restoring wetlands

The third prong of the plan is to protect Manitoba's wetlands by restoring natural filters like the Netley-Libau Marsh that stop pollutants from entering the lake.

That will require a ban on the rapid expansion of peat extraction from wetlands, Selinger said.

"This move recognizes that Manitoba's boreal peatlands are amongst the most carbon-rich wetlands in the world and taking action to protect them is the smart thing to do," said Larry Innes, executive director, Canadian Boreal Initiative.

In the coming year, the province will host an international summit to bring together stakeholders and levels of government throughout the Lake Winnipeg watershed — which spans spans four provinces and two countries — to co-ordinate phosphorous reductions, Selinger said.

With files from The Canadian Press