Federal Lake Winnipeg cash not going toward clean-up

Critics claim federal money is being misspent, more resources needed

More dollars needed: The Lake Winnipeg Foundation would like to see a five-year, $50-million investment in wetland protection and restoration to match the scale of the problem facing the province’s largest lake. Dylan Hewlett

The federal government’s announcement of $17.7 million to clean up the polluted Lake Winnipeg has come under fire from critics who claim the Harper Conservatives are misspending the money.

On Aug. 2, the federal government announced a continuation of funding - $17.7 million over four years - for clean-up efforts on Lake Winnipeg following the $17 million they previously allocated through Environment Canada and the department of Fisheries and Oceans.

This continuation of the initiative will allocate $12.1 million to scientific research, $3.7 million to community stewardship programs, and $1.9 million to water governance.

“For every dollar Ottawa spends, the province and other partners in the cleanup pitch in $2,” said Prime Minister Stephen Harper at the time of the announcement.

The federal government reinvested the money to protect fisheries and the lake for recreational use as part of the second phase of a broader clean-up initiative that began in 2006.

Despite the large sums of money at play, environmental experts remain unconvinced the money will dramatically improve the condition of Lake Winnipeg, which is marred by algal blooms and other pollution-related ailments.

Experts argue the money is largely going toward paying the salaries of federal employees at Environment Canada and the department of Fisheries and Oceans rather than being invested in tangible projects that reduce phosphorous dumping in Lake Winnipeg.

Vicki Burns, outreach coordinator for the Lake Winnipeg Foundation, argues only a small portion of the federal money will be going to lake research.

“Much like the last phase where only $3.5 million went to projects once staff overhead is accounted for there is very little money for research and projects,” she said, adding that an investment of $50 million, over five years, dedicated directly to wetland protection and restoration would match the scale of the problem.

“This ($50 million) is less than the public is paying for the new Bomber stadium and equal to what Manitobans invested into the new polar Bear exhibit at the zoo.”

Once staff overhead is accounted for there is very little money for research and projects.

Vicki Burns, outreach coordinator, Lake Winnipeg Foundation

Adam Sweet, a spokesperson for Environment Canada, stated that the salary numbers were not yet available and he was unable to comment on how the federal investment is being allocated.

Richard Grossman, an employee with the International Institute for Sustainable Development, argues that healthy wetlands are essential for removing nutrients and that investing in wetlands would make a significant contribution to the overall health of Lake Winnipeg.

In particular, Grossman has been studying the economic and environmental benefits of harvested cattails - the tall, reedy marsh plants seen throughout Manitoba - through the Netley-Libau Nutrient Bio-Energy Project.

“Harvested cattails remove 20-60 kilograms of phosphorus per hectare,” he said, adding the federal and provincial governments should collaborate on a strategy to encourage farmers and landowners to maintain their wetlands.

For this to happen, governments need to develop new policies and economic incentives, including the idea of payments for ecological services or tax credits, he said.

Burns and Grossman both agree that wetlands reconstruction is essential to revitalizing the health of Lake Winnipeg.

Additionally, wetland investments could help with flood prevention, according to Burns.

A provincial spokesperson from Manitoba Conservation and Water Stewardship agreed.

“Any water held or delayed in a wetland is water not entering the overall system, and any effort to retain water on the landscape is beneficial overall. Wetlands are an important tool to help mitigate and reduce the impact of small- to medium-sized floods,” the department said in an email.

Representatives from Environment Canada and the department of Fisheries and Oceans were unavailable for further comment on the announcement of the federal investment or alternative proposals by press time.

Published in Volume 67, Number 1 of The Uniter (September 5, 2012)

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