By Ashleigh Mattern
Lake Winnipeg has been battling massive algae blooms for the past 30 years. Agricultural run-off and sewage discharge feed the toxic algae, which has the potential to kill animals and effect human health. And because one of the lake’s primary inflows is the Red River, the crisis isn’t only an issue for the Province of Manitoba, explains Howard Wheater, director of the Global Institute for Water Security (GIWS) at the University of Saskatchewan.
“The Red River is an international river,” said Wheater. “It runs up from Minnesota into Manitoba, so it’s a problem which involves two countries, and within each of those two countries, it involves multiple states in the U.S., and multiple provinces in Canada, multiple federal agencies, and multiple urban and rural communities, and a diverse set of farmers.”
The United Nations has declared 2013 the International Year of Water Co-operation, and Lake Winnipeg’s algae threat is a perfect example of the need for increased co-operation in water management, said Wheater. But there are also more examples, closer to home.
Wheater recently chaired an expert panel for the Council of Canadian Academies (CCA) that developed a report to identify the challenges and opportunities for Canadian agriculture regarding water management, and the science needed to move forward. In the report called Water and Agriculture in Canada: Towards Sustainable Management of Water Resources, the CCA answered the Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada question, what additional science is needed to better guide sustainable management of water to meet the needs of agriculture?
“The report is quite wide ranging, all the way from climate change to social science,” said Wheater.
The report found there is increasing pressure on water resources, due to irrigation and the effects of nutrients in rivers and ground waters, but there is also a possibility for positive opportunities if the agriculture industry can create beneficial management practices to stymie the problems.
The GIWS is already working on a number of the issues brought forward in the report. The institute is researching beneficial farm management practices to minimize the release of chemicals to the downstream environment, and studying how a high load of nutrients coming down from Alberta is affecting Lake Diefenbaker.
“There’s a need to bring people together to address these problems,” said Wheater.
To that end, the GIWS is developing water resource models for the Saskatchewan River basin that will be of use for researchers, stakeholders, and water managers; and speaking to local First Nations communities to understand their concerns with water quality.
“One of the issues around water is that it effects many of the most important sectors of the economy,” said Wheater. “The link with agriculture and food is critical, but equally it links with energy, and of course we need clean water for drinking ... and not forgetting that water has environmental and spiritual values, too.”
Research at the institute goes beyond water management and co-operation, of course. There are 140 members at the institute, with research projects ranging from issues nearby to international projects in Ghana and Bangladesh.
Wheater will be speaking about water challenges and current developments within the institute at a talk on World Water Day March 22 at Convocation Hall.
Ashleigh Mattern is a Saskatoon freelance writer