Changing water quality in FortWhyte’s lakes presents challenges and opportunities
The lakes of FortWhyte are its life blood. As exhausted clay quarries of Lafarge’s cement manufacturing days, they gradually filled with runoff over the decades. Their water attracted wildlife, the wildlife attracted public interest, and the combination of all three laid the foundation for today’s FortWhyte Alive, where our lakes are enjoyed year-round for wildlife viewing, fishing, swimming, paddling, sailing, skating and tobogganing. But today, Winnipeg’s ‘Lake District’ is showing signs of deteriorating health.
In much the same way as Lake Winnipeg’s health has become such a pressing concern, so too have FortWhyte’s lakes been experiencing changes to their water quality. This is due in large measure to nutrient loading from watershed runoff, the feces of thousands of staging geese and gulls each fall, and a changing climate. With no natural outflow to our lakes, these nutrients have accumulated year upon year and are now at a level that support major algae blooms and associated declines in dissolved oxygen, that in turn are threatening a vibrant fishery and general public enjoyment of FortWhyte’s greatest natural asset.
The problems presented by the declining health of our lakes are not without opportunity. Over the past five years, students from the University of Manitoba, supervised by Dr. Gordon Goldsborough, have done exploratory research on our lakes. Sediment cores that represent the history of these water bodies were collected, and have been used to assess long-term changes in water quality. Surface water samples have been analyzed for nutrients such as phosphorus that lead to eutrophication -- a process where water bodies with high levels of nutrients stimulate excessive plant growth.
From these analyses and ongoing observations and sampling by FortWhyte staff, it has been concluded that deteriorating conditions of FortWhyte’s lakes warrant long-term study. There are exciting opportunities to carry out aquatic education and research for undergraduate and graduate students, for exposing them to concept of a watershed in a meaningful way, and for integrating this work with existing and new programming at FortWhyte Alive. This information will also provide the critical foundation on which informed decisions on mitigation and restoration can be made.
FortWhyte Model Watershed
The FortWhyte lakes lie in a small semiurban watershed, drawing in groundwater and surface water from a surrounding area with boundaries that can be mapped and studied. The importance of local factors, such as Canada geese that visit the lakes during the spring and fall migrations, and activities in the surrounding area such as residential and retail development, will have demonstrable effects on lake water quality into the future. Establishing a baseline of knowledge about the lakes and their condition now is an essential step for evaluating the impacts of these changes.
FWA is actively exploring the establishment of a “Model Watershed” that would:
- Enable new educational programming at FortWhyte Alive, educating visitors about the importance of the “watershed concept -- that everything is ultimately interconnected so activities in one place will have implications far away.
- Provide a basis for undergraduate classes from Manitoba universities to collect meaningful “real world” data.
- Provide research opportunities to examine urbanization as it affects water and ecology in a small watershed.
Development of the FortWhyte Model Watershed would engage participants from a range of academic disciplines -- hydrology, civil engineering, geography, soil science, environmental science, ecology, and others -- and would result in a teaching and research facility sufficiently close to university campuses to foster greater “outdoor” exposure for students whose academic programs are otherwise constrained by financial and logistic limits to exclude such experience.
Integration with Curriculum
New university courses in aquatic and watershed studies could be developed to complement research activities undertaken in the FortWhyte Model Watershed. Likewise, educational programming that complements the secondary school curriculum could be designed and delivered by the staff of FortWhyte Alive, building on existing high school field research programs.
Too often, data collected by students is used merely for demonstration purposes and nothing comes of it after the original collection. This gives students the impression that their participation is ultimately futile and their contributions are meaningless. By contrast, the data to be collected as a result of classes and research projects in the FortWhyte Model Watershed will be added to an ongoing data archive, the value of which will grow as it accumulates more data. Students will gain greater appreciation for the work when they realize that they are contributing to a long-term dataset that is fundamentally important to understanding their world.
Creating Citizen Scientists
The most important aspect of this opportunity, is that it encourages young people to become active participants in collecting, analyzing and understanding data about the environment around them. In so doing, we will create a generation of “citizen scientists” who understand the environmental issues that we confront in the 21st century, and are willing and able to participate actively in addressing them -- whether in collecting the data needed to assess the changes, or crafting public policies and strategies for coping with them.
FortWhyte has always operated on the principle that we significantly compromise the quality of the education we offer our upcoming generations if we do not expose them to natural environments in an immersive way. The development of education and research curricula at FortWhyte Alive, based on the watershed concept and developed by means of active field work and data analysis in the FortWhyte Model Watershed, provides a feasible and meaningful way of addressing this deficiency.
Lake Restoration Planning
Like water bodies elsewhere in the prairies, most notably Lake Winnipeg , the water quality in lakes of FortWhyte Alive is threatened by inputs from nutrient-laden overland run-off, thousands of staging
waterfowl, and the effects of climate change. Being closed basins with no natural outflows that might serve to flush nutrients away, our lakes experience deterioration in a markedly shorter timeframe than other lakes. Algae blooms are already increasing in frequency and intensity in several of the lakes.
It is crucial to the environmental and operational sustainability of FortWhyte Alive that a comprehensive plan be developed to understand more fully the nature of the threats to lake water quality, and to develop a plan for mitigating the impact of poor water quality on the facility as a whole. There are many opportunities to transfer knowledge acquired from the study of lakes at FortWhyte Alive to other Canadian sites with poor water quality, such as urban stormwater retention basins, sewage treatment ponds, and natural lakes and wetlands subject to watershed runoff.