The Lake Winnipeg Foundation is enlisting volunteers to help monitor nutrients that pass through Manitoba waterways and create problems further downstream.

Phosphorus is the main culprit contributing to toxic algal blooms in basins such as Lake Winnipeg.

Through the Lake Winnipeg Health Plan monitoring project, the foundation hopes to gain a better sense of "hotspots" in southern Manitoba that are contributing the most to the problem. In order to do that, regular Manitobans who aren't afraid of getting their hands a little wet will have to help out, Lake Winnipeg Foundation executive director Alexis Kanu said Tuesday.

Status of phosphorus and nitrogen levels in Lake Winnipeg

Status of phosphorus and nitrogen levels in Lake Winnipeg and in three tributary rivers between 2011 and 2013. (Environment Canada)

"It's very much about the power of collaboration. It's about bringing the grassroots commitments to the health of our lakes together with the necessary scientific expertise," Kanu said, adding it's all about getting to the "root causes of harmful algae blooms on Lake Winnipeg."

Mike Stainton, Lake Winnipeg Foundation adviser and aquatic chemist, likened the project to rural crime watch models, "where you have a system or organization out on the landscape that has the eyes and ears of people living on the landscape keeping their eyes open."

Scientists already know that the big contributors of phosphorus and nitrogen to Manitoba waterways are municipal wastewater and agricultural runoff. In the latter case, when surface waters run over farmland, they pick up things like farm fertilizers before draining into streams and creeks, which eventually spill into places like Lake Winnipeg.

Both nitrogen and phosphorus contribute to plant growth in lakes and streams, but when there is too much phosphorus in particular, toxic blue-green algal blooms can form and jeopordize the overall health of a lake.

Water sample kit, Winnipeg

This is the water sampler volunteers dip into water as part of the project. (CBC)

Volunteers with the foundation's monitoring project are assigned a kit worth $500 in plastic bottles and a water sampling device that "looks pretty ridiculous" but only costs about $10 a pop to produce, Stainton said. Samples are then mailed to a lab for testing.

Volunteers sent in about 200 samples throughout the summer as part of the recently-launched program, and Kanu says they will soon receive feedback about what they collected.

"As we head into the fall, we're starting to share that data back with our community partners to ensure that they understand what the data they collected means, and how they can use it locally to influence and inform policy and planning and management decisions at the community level," Kanu said.

"Credible citizen-generated data can start that conversation and enrich what it is we already know about the health of our waters."

Organizers hope to expand the project and get testing kits into the hands of more Manitobans in 2017.

Anyone interested in getting involved with the project is asked to contact the Lake Winnipeg Foundation.

algae at Grand Beach

Cottager Harley Hudon took this photo of the algae at Grand Beach on the shores of Lake Winnipeg this summer. He said a long stretch of the beach was covered in thick sludge. (Harley Hudon)

With files from Meagan Fiddler