Read this and another interview in PDF:
By Jim Mosher
Dr. David W. Schindler wrote the book on the study of whole-lake ecosystems. Schindler, then an employee of the Fisheries Research Board of Canada, precursor to the Dept. of Fisheries and Oceans, was lead scientist at the Experimental Lakes Area when it was created in 1968.
The ELA team would establish, in a series of benchmark studies, that algal blooms in lake systems over-fertilized with nutrients phosphorus (P) and nitrogen (N) could be eliminated with a staged reduction in the amount of phosphorus entering the system.
ELA research was instrumental in getting the Canadian and American federal governments to ban phosphorus in laundry detergent — a move credited with bringing Lake Erie back from the ecological brink more than 40 years ago.
ELA also demonstrated the science behind acid rain — once again leading to regulatory changes that forced industrial polluters to clean up their acts.
The nutrient enrichment problem that faced Lake Erie in the 1970s is a carbon copy of what’s happening to Lake Winnipeg.
Dr. Schindler is Killam Memorial Professor of Ecology at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, where he has taught limnology, the philosophy, sociology and politics of science, science and public policy in Canada, and environmental decision making.
In a July 2007 interview, Schindler talked about Lake Winnipeg. At the time, the Manitoba provincial government was eying control of both phosphorus and nitrogen, even though work at ELA had clearly demonstrated that phosphorus was the principal nutrient accelerating Lake Winnipeg’s deteriorating health.
Jim Mosher (JM): Are you optimistic about Lake Winnipeg’s recovery?
David Schindler (DS): I think, if a lot of effort is put into phosphorus control, it can recover. It’ll probably be slow.
The war that’s going on as to whether to control phosphorus or nitrogen doesn’t make a lot of sense. We’ve known for over 30 years that reducing phosphorus inputs is required. A sure way to make sure you have more healthy algal blooms is to cut nitrogen.
JM: What should be done now?
DS: I think the leadership should come from the bigger communities on the Red River for starters. I think the City of Winnipeg should say it’s going to remove phosphorus from sewage.
JM: Most municipal sewage plants discharge effluent into waterways. Is there an alternative?
DS: There really isn’t right now. I really think, though, that in the long term we need to get away from the 19th-century notion that water is just there to wash away sewage.
Composting and combustion toilets — I think we really need to be turning to that on a large scale.
JM: You mentioned in a 2004 Macleans magazine interview that ‘sustainable development’ gives precedence to economics over the environment. (See Endnote.)
DS: I think the word ‘sustainable’ has gone well beyond its original definition.
JM: Is there reason to hope that we can protect our environment?
DS: I feel fairly optimistic on the aquatic side. I don’t feel optimistic about some of the things that are happening otherwise — and the unwanted effects these are having.
Big-scale projects like the Alberta Tar Sands. Our apparent lack of concern about greenhouse gas emissions.
JM: Do you have any thoughts about North Dakota’s plans to take Missouri River water across the Laurentian Continental Divide into the Hudson Bay Drainage Basin?
DS: That’s a particularly dangerous one because of huge differences in the biota of these two systems. In general, you end up compromising both systems. [However], Canadians are really hypocrites on this; in that we say that if these interbasin transfers are within Canada, that’s okay.
JM: Lake Winnipeg is not only the world’s tenth largest freshwater lake, it’s also the world’s third largest hydroelectric reservoir. Manitoba Hydro regulates lake levels to optimize the generation of electricity. This has changed the retention times of nutrients.
DS: It’s not only regulation of Lake Winnipeg but both that regulation and changes in the North and South Saskatchewan rivers.
Fifty years ago, the biggest river by far [contributing to Lake Winnipeg] was the Saskatchewan. Now the Winnipeg River contributes most. That’s due, in part, to dams constructed along the Saskatchewan, where water is held back, particularly during the summer, by all the big dams.
There are three main models that are used, internationally, to establish the degree of eutrophication [a process caused by over-fertilization]. All of them have water inflows as a component. If you want to scum your water with algae, double the nutrient input or halve the water input.
Before all those dams on the Saskatchewan, the water going into Lake Winnipeg’s North Basin was not very clear. Those turbid waters reduced light penetration, and kept the North Basin from growing a lot of algae.
JM: We often complain that Lake Winnipeg is among the world’s least studied. In a given year, maybe a dozen scientists, that’s generous, actually do research on the lake. You can almost name them all.
There are too few scientists, and what they produce is fragmented; it does not reach the public.
DS: Nobody is really putting together a big-picture synthesis, then putting it out there and presenting it publicly.
JM: With all the ecological stressors to Lake Winnipeg and the fact that it is so understudied, you’d think scientists would see some real challenges studying this lake in particular. There is no line up.
Where are the scientists?
DS: The politicians keep cutting funding to them. I worked with Fisheries and Oceans for 22 years. It has cut its budget every year for 34 years in real dollars. Its attitude is that water is now a provincial responsibility.
Fisheries and Oceans, very clearly, wants to put every last cent into collapsing marine fisheries and collapsing salmon stock — which have taken out billions of dollars for what’s proved a useless exercise.
The budgets of some Fisheries and Oceans scientists are smaller than those of some of my graduate students.
It’s an international disgrace.
It goes beyond Lake Winnipeg. I’ve had a number of graduate students and post-doctoral students who have looked at positions at the Freshwater Institute [which is funded by the Dept. of Fisheries and Oceans]. Starting salaries in government institutions like the Freshwater Institute cannot even compete with those offered by the smallest universities. DFO is losing the best of the best.
We really need a total refurbishment of the civil services at Environment Canada and Fisheries and Oceans. Our environmental problems have multiplied at the same time their budgets have been cut for decades and decades.
Endnote: Macleans asked Schindler why, after Canada worked so closely with the U.S. on Lake Erie in the 1970s, “there is so little concern today about Lake Winnipeg’s fate?”
Schindler replied: “I think that in the 1970s we still had a few vertebrates among politicians and bureaucrats. And in those days, there was none of the stupid ‘sustainable development’ rhetoric that obfuscates environmental issues today and always ends up with environment second to economics.”