Citizen scientists volunteer to help protect the health of Lake Winnipeg

The Lake Winnipeg Foundation's community-based water monitoring network enables citizen scientists to get out on the land quickly and easily to check on phosphorus flows into Manitoba waterways.

Lake Winnipeg Foundation project has hundreds of sites across Manitoba

Peter Williams is a member of the Lake Winnipeg Foundation's community-based water monitoring network. (Cameron MacLean/CBC)

Down a bumpy road between fields of canola, near the junction of Cooks Creek and Edie Creek, Peter Williams drives his car toward the site of a major experiment in citizen science.

The site, near Dugald in the Rural Municipality of Springfield, is one of more than 100 locations across the Lake Winnipeg basin.

Williams is a member of the Lake Winnipeg Foundation's community-based water monitoring network, a team of volunteers dedicated to rehabilitating the lake, which every year becomes clogged with massive blooms of blue-green algae.

"I'm a baby boomer, and it's my generation, through neglect of the environment, that has led to issues that we're seeing in Lake Winnipeg with the algae blooms," said Williams, who is an electrical engineer and geographic information scientist.

"I have seven grandchildren and I'd like to leave them with something better than what we have now," he said.

For years, water scientists have struggled to cut the amount of nutrients flowing into the lake. Billions of dollars are being invested to upgrade infrastructure such as water treatment plants — single-point sources of phosphorus and nitrogen, which feed the algae blooms sucking oxygen out of the lake and sliming up the shoreline every summer.

Blue-green algae coats rocks at Victoria Beach last summer. (Kristie Pearson)

Those point sources, where high concentrations of nutrients flow into waterways, are the "low-hanging fruit" for those trying to solve the problem of nutrient over-loading in Lake Winnipeg, according to Alexis Kanu, executive director of the Lake Winnipeg Foundation.

The harder problem to solve involves disparate, non-point sources such as farm fields and livestock spread across the basin.

"We need to know where in the watershed the phosphorus is coming from, and our network of citizen volunteers is helping us identify phosphorus hotspots across the landscape to help make that possible," Kanu said.

With a watershed that spreads over four provinces and four U.S. states, responsibility for the lake crosses many boundaries. On a recent trip to Manitoba, federal Environment Minister Catherine McKenna announced the community-based water monitoring network will receive $260,000 over four years.

Federal Environment Minister Catherine McKenna has announced the LWF will receive $260,000 over four years to fund the water-monitoring project. (CBC)

"I think this federal funding is a huge vote of confidence in this network of volunteers, and the value they're adding to our collective efforts to solve this problem," Kanu said.

Williams points to a metal shack with an antenna on its roof. It contains equipment that monitors the amount of water flowing past, beaming that information to the Water Survey of Canada headquarters in Gatineau, Que.

"That data is then available online in near real-time," said Kanu. "So we're able to download that flow data that the government is collecting and match it with our phosphorus concentrations, which enables us to calculate the total load."

When water flows increase, the citizen scientists spring into action.

"Citizens offer us a really great opportunity to get out on the landscape more frequently and in more places," said Kanu.

Alexis Kanu is the executive director of the Lake Winnipeg Foundation. (Cameron MacLean/CBC)

Williams lives in a rural residential area outside of Dugald. The sampling site is a small culvert half a kilometre downstream from the flow monitoring station. Standing beside the water, he listens to the sound of crickets as a blue heron swoops by.

"It's just great being out here, it's so quiet," he said. "That's a significant benefit to this job that we're doing."

Williams pulls out a box containing containers for collecting samples. The network uses different canisters for each of their sites to avoid transferring invasive species from one site to another.

The volunteers uses different canisters at each site to avoid spreading invasive species. (Cameron MacLean/CBC)

He dips the canister, tied to a rope, into the water. He does this three times, the first two times to rinse the bottle out, the last time to collect the sample to be analyzed.

The sample is then separated into two bottles. One contains the unfiltered sample, with all the particulates.

To fill the second, smaller bottle, Williams pulls out a plastic syringe with a small filter on the tip. He fills the syringe with water, then begins squeezing into the small glass bottle.

"It's starting to get hard because the filter is filling up with — stuff is the scientific term," Williams said.

Williams squeezes water through a filter into a small container, held by community-basted water monitoring co-ordinator Chelsea Lobson. (Cameron MacLean/CBC)

Chelsea Lobson, community-based water monitoring co-ordinator, holds the bottle while Williams squeezes the syringe.

"The filter is used to take out all the particulate, and then what we're left with is only the phosphorus that's dissolved in the water," Lobson said.

The date, time, and site conditions are then recorded in a custom-made smartphone app.

Lobson will then take the samples to be tested in Morden  at the Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada - Morden Research and Development Centre.

Williams and Lobson separate water samples for analysis. (Cameron MacLean/CBC)

Now in its third season, the community-based water monitoring network has two years of data. This summer, the LWF will conduct a lab comparison study with Manitoba Sustainable Development and Environment and Climate Change Canada, to see how well their data match up.

A spokesperson for Manitoba Sustainable Development said the LWF's phosphorus data is complimentary to monitoring done by the provincial and federal governments, and will help identify major sources of phosphorus in the lake.

Phosphorus exports for 35 sub-watersheds in southern Manitoba, from 2017 data generated by LWCBM. Phosphorus hotspots are in red. (Submitted by LWF)

"This will help to target nutrient load reductions and to realize water quality improvements across the province," the spokesperson said in an email.

Wherever those sources of phosphorus are identified, Williams wants to see action taken to protect Lake Winnipeg for future generations.

"There has to be an awareness of what's causing these problems and where problems can be identified, and where steps can be taken, I think we'll be quite a few steps further in resolving the issue."


Cameron MacLean is a journalist for CBC Manitoba living in Winnipeg, where he was born and raised. He has more than a decade of experience reporting in the city and across Manitoba, covering a wide range of topics, including courts, politics, housing, arts, health and breaking news. Email story tips to