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Lake Winnipeg declared threatened lake of year

A global environmental fund has put Lake Winnipeg on the map -- and that's a threat.

The Global Nature Fund has declared the world's 10th-largest fresh water lake the "threatened lake of the year" for 2013.

"Our lake is tremendously precious," said Vicki Burns, outreach co-ordinator for the Lake Winnipeg Foundation. "When it gets in this position, it raises huge red flags around the world."

Her group nominated Lake Winnipeg.

Environmental organizations have long decried the amount of phosphorus and nutrients flowing into Lake Winnipeg via sewage waste, agricultural chemicals and livestock manure. The materials have triggered the growth of potentially toxic blue-green algae blooms during the last decade.

The group that named Lake Winnipeg the world's most threatened is a non-profit group headquartered in Radolfzell, Germany. It was founded in 1998 with the objective of fostering the protection of nature, the environment and animals. Its Living Lakes project, which includes the Threatened Lake of the Year, is an official UN Decade Project for the years 2012 and 2013.

"It's extending now to a global scale," noted Alex Salki, a science advisory council chairman for the LWF. "And it's not like receiving an award. Definitely, it's a wake-up call."

In a news release, Global Nature Fund spokesman Udo Gattenlohner said that while Lake Winnipeg is well-known, its "dramatic environmental problems" are not. "Many people in Germany and throughout Europe believe environmental problems hardly occur in Canada," Gattenlohner said. "However, recent changes in Canadian policies seem to be eroding the protection particularly of vulnerable water ecosystems -- and it is disappointing because this does not really fit with our image of Canada."

Bob Sandford, chairman of the Canadian Partnership Initiative in support of the UN Water for Life Decade, said: "Lake Winnipeg has at last been identified internationally as one of the world's great fresh water disasters, just as many scientists predicted.

"Despite the efforts and good intentions of concerned Manitobans, Canada's international environmental reputation has been downgraded to below that of a developing nation."

Manitoba Water Stewardship Minister Gord Mackintosh noted the designation underlines the need for stakeholders -- governments, industry, agriculture and residents -- to band together in a basin-wide approach. "It's always good to be reminded our great lake is in peril," he said. "We need to take this to a new level."

Mackintosh cited recent provincial announcements, such as the $3.5-million partnership with Ducks Unlimited to protect the Delta Marsh and $600,000 for initiatives to restore the lake, along with plans to develop a Lake Winnipeg Basin Accord. "We still have nets full of fish and beaches full of people," Mackintosh added. "But we have to enhance our efforts to keep it that way."

The largest contributor to Lake Winnipeg phosphorous is from treated Winnipeg sewage dumped into the Red River. That will be reduced in four to six years when the city completes a $1.8-billion sewage-treatment overhaul.

randy.turner@freepress.mb.ca

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