Setting Water Quality Targets for Lake of the Woods – The IJC Needs Your Help!
The view from space is compelling. Each summer, Lake of the Woods is plagued by blue green algae blooms, as can be seen in this satellite image. It’s a transboundary lake – provincially and internationally – and that means that we have to cooperate closely with our neighbors in Manitoba and in the U.S. to protect our shared waters. This is the reason we have the International Joint Commission, or IJC, and its Rainy-Lake of the Woods Watershed Board, with a mandate to monitor ecosystem health across the border.
So, how do you protect water quality when the water crosses multiple boundaries? This is definitely a challenge, but one that the IJC’s Watershed Board has recently taken on. Initiated in November 2018, the goal of the project is to recommend water quality and aquatic ecosystem health objectives for the boundary waters in our watershed. These objectives are targets for both countries to meet to protect water quality and aquatic ecosystem health. While there are dated objectives for the Rainy River, we currently do not have any internationally agreed upon water quality objectives for Lake of the Woods.
In the Rainy-Lake of the Woods Watershed as a whole, there are several lakes and rivers that are shared and there are many aquatic ecosystem health issues of concern: as noted above, algae blooms and the addition of nutrients that drive them are on the list, as are contaminants, aquatic invasive species and adaptation to climate change. This makes setting objectives a complex task, but this project will provide a meaningful benchmark against which to measure water quality improvements or changes. For an explanation of how objectives are used in boundary waters, please go to: https://ijc.org/en/rlwwb/water-quality-objectives-and-alerts.
This first phase of the project will be completed by the end of October 2019. It will identify indicators needed to address the water quality issues listed above, prioritized for the various geographic areas in the watershed. The team has held workshops and discussions with experts and the public and will continue to do so until the completion of this first phase. Phase 2 will follow in the fall and will identify the specific guidelines that will be assigned to the recommended water quality objectives.
In March, the public sessions were held in International Falls, MN and two sessions were held in Kenora on July 8, 2019. The information from these sessions will add important information and perspectives to the final product.
For more information on this project, please contact Kelli Saunders at email@example.com, International Watershed Coordinator with the Lake of the Woods Water Sustainability Foundation.
Our Watershed: Is It Healthy?
Last week, I outlined what a “watershed” is and described the geography of ours – the Rainy-Lake of the Woods Watershed. It is huge and diverse, so it goes without saying that the environmental issues are just as diverse.
Low populations, fairly low industrial impacts, lots of forest cover and water all make for a generally healthy watershed. But, over the years as more attention turned towards ecosystem health, it became clear that there are, indeed, environmental stresses here and what is a stress on Lake of the Woods is not necessarily a stress upstream. Let’s go on a tour of the watershed from east to west and see how the issues differ as we move downstream.
In the headwaters on the Canadian side, most of the land is protected from development within Quetico Provincial Park; water quality is fairly good but influenced by underlying bedrock geology. On the U.S. side, forest and wetlands dominate, but mining in the Iron Range of Minnesota has raised concerns about potential contamination of land and waters. Draining of wetlands is also likely a stressor on biological communities.
As we move downstream towards the central watershed, increased runoff and impacts from historical logging in the 1890s through 1937 are thought to be contributing to the current erosion of riverbanks and excessive stream turbidity on the Little Fork River in Minnesota, which drains from the south into the Rainy River. Similarly, erosion and related nutrient runoff are occurring on the Canadian tributaries to the Rainy River. As you get closer to the mouth of the Rainy River, where it drains into Lake of the Woods, there are more wetlands in the U.S. and agricultural lands on the Canadian side. The Rainy River has seen major improvements in water quality since the mid-1960s when the International Joint Commission (IJC) established a pollution board for the River. Phosphorus and other pollution declined rapidly in the late 1970s and 1980s, when much more stringent regulations were implemented by both countries. Nevertheless, we are still paying for past sins with a legacy of phosphorus built up in the lake bottom, continuing to drive how much phosphorus is in the lake today. This brings us to one of the main issues facing the downstream end of the watershed – excessive nutrients (namely, phosphorus) driving algae blooms in Lake of the Woods. The science is showing that climate change is making things worse – our lakes are ice-free 20-30 days longer compared to the 1960s and the longer growing season provides conditions for more growth of algae.
At the south end of Lake of the Woods, erosion is also a main concern, with sandy shorelines and the delicate islands known as Pine and Curry susceptible to changing water levels and wave action.
The presence of mercury in the aquatic food webs continues to be the main concern for fish consumption advisories in both Ontario and Minnesota. Aquatic invasive species are in several of the waterbodies throughout the basin.
As you can imagine, international cooperation on environmental issues is key, but complex. We are fortunate to have the IJC’s Rainy-Lake of the Woods Watershed Board in place to provide that common platform for cooperation. Sharing of research and ideas has never been stronger in this basin!
What is A Watershed and What’s Unique About Ours?
Everyone lives in a watershed and here in Kenora, we live in what’s called the Rainy-Lake of the Woods Watershed, a massive basin, with its beginnings (called headwaters) only a short distance west of Lake Superior. A watershed is like a bathtub or catch basin, defined by high points and ridgelines that descend into lower elevations and stream valleys. A watershed carries water that is “shed” from the land after rain falls and snow melts. Drop by drop, water is channeled into the soils, groundwater, creeks and streams, making its way to larger rivers, lakes and eventually, the sea. Water interacts with all that it comes in contact with – the land it traverses and the soils through which is travels. Most importantly, what we do to the land and air affects water quality for all communities living downstream of us.
The Rainy-Lake of the Woods Watershed is 69,750 sq. km, roughly 400 km east to west and 260 km north to south. About 41% of the watershed is in the U.S. and 59% is in Canada. If you’ve travelled to Atikokan or Upsala in Ontario or Ely or Cook in Minnesota, you were still in our watershed. If you’ve paddled the Turtle River in Ontario or fished in Vermilion Lake in Minnesota, you were still in our watershed. Approximately 14% of the watershed is open water; where there is land, 93% is covered by forest or grassland, and much of that is within provincial parks and national forests. Only 6.4% of the landbase is agricultural, mostly found in the lower Rainy River area.
In our watershed, all the water flows towards either the Rainy River or Lake of the Woods, funnels into the Winnipeg River at Kenora and eventually reaches Lake Winnipeg. About 70% of the water that flows into Lake of the Woods comes directly from the Rainy River, which of course is half in Canada and half in the U.S. This truly makes our watershed unique – water knows no boundaries and, as demonstrated naturally here, although the water comes from two countries, it meets up in one common place – right here in Kenora where our outlets steer it off to travel into another province to yet again mingle with new water.