Rescuing Lake Winnipeg with Better Public Policy

Commentary, Environment, Peter Holle

Lake Winnipeg is in trouble due to record algae blooms caused by an excess of nutrients, primarily phosphorus, entering the lake. The Province of Manitoba has reacted with new rules and regulations and has forced the City of Winnipeg to make costly waste water treatment system improvements. But good intentions are no substitute for well thought out policy. Take the issue of “grey water” and the Manitoba cottager. Grey water is the relatively benign water from showers and sinks as opposed to the more problematic, “black water” which is basically raw sewage.

In 2005 officialdom effectively decreed that new cottages could not use grey water septic fields to treat domestic grey water. Properly designed and maintained, grey water septic fields are economic and efficient treatment systems. “Black water” must be trucked to water treatment facilities, mostly open air lagoons where after “primary treatment” the residue is released into natural water systems.

On the surface, discouraging grey water leakage into natural water systems seems reasonable. Soapy grey water can contain phosphates – a prime culprit behind Lake Winnipeg’ algae problems. Now there is chatter about banning existing grey water fields used by thousands of cottagers. If only it was that simple. The grey water ban has produced unintended consequences with worse environmental outcomes. Consider the evolving situation from “cottage country” in Whiteshell Provincial Park.

Things are booming in cottage country, one of this province’s few true advantages. Manitobans are replacing rustic dwellings with modern, all season structures. The new rules ban grey water septic fields so shower water is now picked up and hauled to the local lagoon. Most homes and cottages produce several times more grey water than black water so more waste water must now be transported to existing lagoons. But the grey water banners forgot a critical detail – they needed to expand the old lagoons. The catastrophic, and unreported, result – an increasing number of unplanned “emergency discharges” as overloaded sewage ponds are spilled into places like the normally pristine Winnipeg River and Westhawk Lake. The situation is so severe at Westhawk that they now dump the lagoons every 6 weeks instead of twice a year (spring and fall).

Expanding lagoons will require more dedicated land area. Five times more waste water means five times more lagoons. In most cases we don’t have the land area. Worse, the existing lagoons are old and poorly maintained and many are badly leaking. More grey water effectively means dumping more untreated waste water into our lakes and rivers.

These discharges have decreased the environmental quality that cottage owners formerly enjoyed, with Lake Winnipeg absorbing an even higher unintentional discharge of nutrients. As more cottage housing stock is renewed, more people are living in cottage country year round. But as existing grey water systems are restricted and ultimately banned, this problem will only get worse.

There are smart ways to control the nutrient load into Lake Winnipeg. But first we must consider how much of the problem is beyond our control. According to the December 2006 final report of the Lake Winnipeg Stewardship Board 53% of the load comes from the U.S. and other provinces and 23% comes from natural sources. Less than a quarter comes from Manitoba sources with 15% from agriculture (only 1.5% from the much maligned pork industry) while 9 percent comes from Winnipeg and other municipalities.

Obviously, there needs to be an action plan to mitigate nutrient loads from outside Manitoba. Locally, the government needs to stop scapegoating agriculture and cottagers with simplistic regulatory overkill. Restrictions and bans on phosphate based soaps and detergents, while difficult, might be considered. Give cottagers a choice. Using a grey water field system? Then you must use soaps or detergents without phosphates.

Instead of banning grey water systems, move to smarter and stricter enforcement. Properly designed and managed grey water septic fields are an economical and effective water treatment method. In Ontario, inspectors can place dyes into grey water systems. If leakage is detected they can padlock the offending dwelling. We can prevent leaks with a competent and reasonable inspection regime. Alberta uses properly accredited contract inspectors to do most of the work; with strict oversight from government managers.

The Province frog-marched the City of Winnipeg into a $1.2 billion waste water plant upgrade which will reduce the city’s 5% portion of nutrient load going into Lake Winnipeg to about 2.5%. It would have been more effective to improve inadequate rural sewer treatment infrastructure, especially as it becomes more overwhelmed by the Province’s naïve grey water ban.

A conventional renewal approach would see significantly more funding for expanding lagoons. Better, it could fund more sophisticated local treatment technologies like sequential batch reactors (SBR). This cost efficient waste water treatment system uses a biological process to breakdown waste and remove nutrients. SBR plants require relatively small footprints of land and cost more than two thirds less than conventional institutional type waste water treatment plants run by governments if built as BOO’s (Build Own Operate) with private engineering companies handling technology performance, risk and funding issues.

Spending $1.2 billion to produce little change in Winnipeg’s nutrient load to make some politicians look like they are doing something was poor policy. We can discourage this by requiring the use of modern cost benefit systems in government to insulate important capital investment decisions from crass politics.

Ironically, governments would never allow a private sector operator of a rural sewage lagoon to cavalierly proceed with emergency discharges of raw sewage from simplistic grey water bans. Governments have an inherent conflict of interest when they regulate themselves which explains why public agencies are usually the worst environmental offenders. We need to separate the regulators from being the owners and operators of critical environmental infrastructure by privatizing and contracting out these services.

As for grey water bans, tread carefully. They are a cure worse than the disease. The lesson from cottage country is that when it comes to easy regulatory fixes, there is no free lunch.