Progress Report on the Lake Winnipeg Basin Initiative 2012 to 2013 and 2014 to 2014: chapter 3

Science (Research and Monitoring)

Research undertaken by Environment Canada scientists, through the LWBI, provides the Canadian public and stakeholders across the watershed with sound scientific data and information to help make informed decisions about how we can work together to improve water quality in Lake Winnipeg. Under the LWBI, Environment Canada has developed a Science Plan that provides freshwater science and water quality research, monitoring and modelling expertise to contribute to the complex science needs within Lake Winnipeg and its vast basin.


Scientists use electrofishing to study how changes in water quality affect the health of fish (Plum Coulee Creek, Manitoba).

Governments and other partners need the data and science provided by Environment Canada to make informed watershed and nutrient management decisions. The goal of the LWBI science plan is to bridge current knowledge gaps related to the lake’s ecology and nutrient cycling, and to track the sources and transport of nutrients (such as phosphorus and nitrogen) throughout the lake and its basin. Research conducted by Environment Canada is providing the information that will help decision makers develop nutrient objectives for the lake and develop performance indicators to assess the health of the lake and its response to nutrient management actions within the basin. Environment Canada science activities complement actions underway by the Province of Manitoba as well as other federal, provincial and state jurisdictions within the watershed.

The Science Plan in Phase II of the LWBI builds on activities and projects conducted in Phase I (2007-2012). Research from Phase I addressed knowledge gaps about the physical, chemical and biological nature of Lake Winnipeg and helped the scientific community gain a better understanding of the impacts of nutrients attributed to algal blooms in the lake. Several publications have already been produced by Environment Canada scientists to report on work from Phase I of the LWBI. A full listing of Lake Winnipeg-related publications by Environment Canada scientists up to 2014 is available in Appendix 1.

In Phase II of the LWBI, the main focus of LWBI scientific activities shifted from lake-based to land-based research, monitoring and reporting with the intention to:

  • Fill priority data gaps;
  • Target actions to improve the ecological health of the lake; and
  • Measure performance of actions taken to improve water quality.

Phase II will further develop the knowledge base established in Phase I and inform management decisions about how to improve the health of Lake Winnipeg and ensure the ecological sustainability of the lake and its basin.

Environment Canada continues to work closely with other federal departments, provincial agencies, binational agencies, and regional and local partners to address data and knowledge gaps. This work will help decision makers develop a science-based nutrient and algal bloom management program with ecologically relevant information. Every effort is made to ensure that federal actions will build upon work and expertise already in place.

In Phase II of the LWBI, Environment Canada is enhancing its contribution to Lake Winnipeg research, monitoring and modelling with the following activities that support the science needs of the lake:

  • Implementing a plan that provides the necessary science to inform policy and programs, and to support decision making related to the nutrient management issues of the lake;
  • Supporting and promoting information sharing between partners through use of the single window information portal developed in Phase I;
  • Utilizing research and monitoring data to inform the establishment of ecologically relevant nutrient objectives for Lake Winnipeg; and
  • Developing performance indicators that can be used to assess the ecological health of the lake and its watershed.

The Science Plan includes a number of key deliverables that will help meet the science needs in Lake Winnipeg and its basin. These key deliverables are:

  • Addressing knowledge gaps related to the impacts of human activity, particularly land use, on the fate, effect and delivery of nutrients in Lake Winnipeg tributaries;
  • Developing predictive models in support of nutrient management in Lake Winnipeg and its basin;
  • Undertaking water quality and biotic monitoring to track spatial and temporal flux of nutrients and algae transported from the watershed to Lake Winnipeg and to support development of modelling scenarios; and
  • Addressing critical knowledge gaps in lake nutrient dynamics relative to changes in nutrient loads to Lake Winnipeg.

Science Deliverable 1: Addressing knowledge gaps related to the impacts of human activity, particularly land use, on the fate, effect and delivery of nutrients in Lake Winnipeg tributaries

Projects and Progress 2012-2013 to 2013-2014

  • Investigating Nutrient Sources and Transport in Runoff from Agricultural Fields
    • In collaboration with researchers from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada and the University of Manitoba, Environment Canada scientists continued their research in assessing nutrient sources and transport in runoff from agricultural fields. Discharge and nutrient data were obtained for snowmelt and rainfall runoff events at four edge-of-field sites, including two in-stream sites where hog manure was applied, and 14 stream sites in the Red River watershed. The research is showing that snowmelt is the critical period for delivery of water and nutrients (particularly dissolved nutrients) to watersheds in southern Manitoba. These findings will further our ability to develop appropriate management practices to minimize nutrient loss from agricultural lands in this region.
  • Quantifying the Fate and Effects of Nutrients from Agriculturally Dominant Watersheds through Tributaries of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers
    • Land use activity is a major contributor of total phosphorus and total nitrogen to small watersheds in the Canadian prairies, and these inputs affect the ecological condition of prairie streams. This project has two components:
      1. To quantify seasonal patterns in nutrient concentrations in relation to human activity for streams in the Red River Valley; and
      2. To identify a suite of biological indicators suitable for monitoring the impacts of human activities on the ecological condition of stream ecosystems within the Red River Valley.
    • Intensive fieldwork during 2010 and 2013, and continuing in 2014, showed that the highest concentrations of total phosphorus and total nitrogen in Red River Valley streams occur during snowmelt, with the only exception being streams that receive waste water discharged from sewage lagoons during summer. Export of total phosphorus and total nitrogen from streams is correlated with agricultural land area, specifically canola and small grains, and fertilizer application.
    • In partnership with the Tobacco Creek Model Watershed Consortium, research is under way to develop biological and biochemical indicators to assess the ecological condition of watersheds in southern Manitoba and determine how these conditions change over time as a result of both natural process (e.g., climate) and land use practices (e.g., agriculture). Initial research indicates that the selected indicators are sensitive to the types of disturbance or stress occurring in southern Manitoba and are likely to respond in proportion to the degree of stress. Landscape-scale activities of agriculture (e.g., types of land cover) and waste water treatment are important drivers of the ecological condition of watersheds.
  • Assessing the Role of Human Activity on the Hydrology of Key Areas in the Lake Winnipeg Watershed
    • This work builds on hydrologic studies in Phase I of the LWBI, and includes assessing the impact of land use changes, wetland drainage and climate variability on flooding and nutrient export to Lake Winnipeg. Streamflow generation in the Lake Winnipeg basin is highly influenced by the capacity of the landscape to store water in natural low areas and wetlands. In order to represent these processes in hydrological models, research was performed at the St. Denis National Wildlife Area in partnership with the University of Saskatchewan. The work includes water budget studies to better understand the importance of groundwater on maintaining streamflow, and hydrological process studies to improve understanding of the relationship between contributing area and streamflow. These studies are being used to improve hydrological models that will be used to assess the relative roles of climate and land management on streamflow and nutrient loads to Lake Winnipeg.

Image of an Environment Canada scientist using data sonde equipment in a river

Data sonde equipment is used to measure water quality parameters in waterways that eventually drain into Lake Winnipeg (Tobacco Creek, Miami, Manitoba).


Image of a periphyton sampler in a river

Periphyton samplers are used to collect micro-organisms such as bacteria, protozoa, fungi and algae in order to gauge the level of nutrients in the stream.


Image of an Environment Canada scientist holding a kick net on a riverbank

Kick net sampling is a method used to collect samples of insects and plant material from rivers and streams.

Science Deliverable 2: Developing predictive models in support of nutrient management in the Lake Winnipeg Basin

Projects and Progress 2012-2013 to 2013-2014

  • Modelling of Effects of Land Use Changes, Wetland Drainage and Climate Variability on Flooding and Nutrient Export to Lake Winnipeg
    • In order to meet the expectations of reducing nutrient loads to Lake Winnipeg, an integrated modelling framework was developed to evaluate a range of nutrient management scenarios. This will assist governments in making informed decisions about which actions will provide the best results for the health of Lake Winnipeg and protect the livelihoods of people who depend on the lake for their income.
    • Environment Canada completed the design specifications and development of the LWBI Integrated Modelling and Scenario Decision Support System. Research continued on adjustments to lake/watershed models to achieve in-lake water quality objectives within the decision support system. Environment Canada is working collaboratively with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada to improve, implement and evaluate the beneficial management practices that were selected as the best approaches for reducing nutrient load within the Lake Winnipeg watershed.
    • Environmental data was collected to fill knowledge gaps in the understanding of the physical, chemical and biological aspects of the lake. This information is used in Lake Winnipeg modelling research to improve our knowledge on the effect of water movements and temperature on the water quality in the lake.
    • A lake ecosystem model, developed under Phase I, was further verified with more recent data and additional simulations. This information was shared with the Government of Manitoba and other partners, and Manitoba Conservation and Water Stewardship selected this model for developing nutrient management options in Lake Winnipeg.
    • Under Phase I of the LWBI, Environment Canada developed the LWBI Information Portal, a data and information Web portal for biological and physical information about the Lake Winnipeg watershed. It was designed to provide open data access to stakeholders and the public. The portal has since been transferred to the University of Manitoba, where it was renamed the Lake Winnipeg Basin Information Network. Environment Canada provided guidance and funding to the university for maintaining the portal.

Scientists have developed models that help us to better understand how water quality in Lake Winnipeg changes when the nutrient loading to the lake is reduced.

3D image of Lake Winnipeg

Long description

Image depicting Lake Winnipeg and its three main water bodies, the North Basin, the Narrows and the South Basin. The image also includes the elements that contribute to water levels, such as evaporation, precipitation, the Nelson River outlet, and the four main inflows into the lake (Red River, Winnipeg River, Dauphin River and the Saskatchewan River).

Science Deliverable 3: Undertake water quality and biotic monitoring to track spatial and temporal flux of nutrients and algae transported from the watershed to Lake Winnipeg and to support development of modelling scenarios

Projects and Progress 2012-2013 to 2013-2014

  • Monitoring to Track Changes in Nutrients Within the Lake Winnipeg Basin and Support Modelling Scenarios
    • Measuring nutrient concentrations, including total phosphorus, is part of the ongoing monitoring activities implemented on the most important rivers crossing boundaries between Canada and the United States, such as the Red, Pembina and Souris rivers, and interprovincial rivers such as the Assiniboine, Qu’Appelle and Saskatchewan rivers (Sask.-Man.), Winnipeg River (Man.-Ont.), and the North and South Saskatchewan rivers (Alta.-Sask.). This broad-scale monitoring network, which has been enhanced in some areas such as the Red River and the Rainy River-Lake of the Woods basin, will eventually support nutrient-based objectives between jurisdictions and nutrientcontrol performance measurements. This work, as well as more local-scale research in sub-watersheds closer to Lake Winnipeg, complements the nutrient-monitoring activities that the Province of Manitoba is conducting inside its boundaries.
    • As part of a nationwide, risk-based assessment of its long-term water-quality monitoring network, Environment Canada is analyzing the impact of changes in frequency of water-quality sampling within the Lake Winnipeg basin on the ability to detect long-term trends for things such as nutrients, major ions and metals.
    • A research project on Netley-Libau marsh was initiated to better understand nutrient sequestration. Nutrient sequestration refers to the ability of a lake, pond or wetland to store nitrogen and phosphorus, thus preventing it from flowing into Lake Winnipeg. The capacity of the marsh to influence nutrient loadings to the lake from the Red-Assiniboine sub-watershed is also being studied.
    • Research is also being conducted to assess frogs’ sensitivity to environmental changes, including excess nutrients and habitat degradation. The objective is to establish whether frogs could be part of a bio-monitoring program in the future. This project also focuses on the Red-Assiniboine sub-watershed.
    • A study of the macro-benthos in Lake of the Woods was also completed. Macro-benthos are the tiny organisms, about 1 mm in size, that live in the water and sediment of water bodies. The results of this study allow scientists to develop a reference model based on the national Canadian Aquatic Biomonitoring Network protocol. This reference model will help scientists to better understand what a healthy macro-benthos community should look like within the lake and its watershed.
    • Satellite remote sensing is being used as a cost-effective tool for lakewide algal bloom monitoring on Lake Winnipeg. To validate the satellite data, environmental monitoring data from the lake were gathered at the same time. The information from the satellite images and the lake sampling is being compared, and used to develop algal bloom index prediction algorithms.
    • Nutrients have a distinct “fingerprint” that helps identify where they originated. The technology and science exist to identify the “fingerprints” of the nutrients in Lake Winnipeg and then identify the path they travelled to reach the lake. The research on stable isotope fingerprinting, to determine the origins and distribution of nutrient loading to Lake Winnipeg, continued with intensive sampling in the Red and Assiniboine river basins. Preliminary findings suggest isotopic differences based on different land use in the Red-Assiniboine sub-watershed. The Assiniboine River appears to be dominated by animal manure and sewage treatment plant sources of nutrients, while the Red River is a mixture of chemical fertilizer, animal manure and sewage treatment plant sources.
    • In order to assist in the development and improvement of environmental indicators used for reporting on the health of the lake and its watershed, a scientific workshop was held in October 2013. This workshop involved approximately 30 research and monitoring experts from universities, research institutes, the Lake Winnipeg Research Consortium, and provincial and municipal governments. The workshop focused on developing physical-chemical and biological indicators, and fact sheets that will explain these key nutrient indicators to the general public are currently in development.

Image of two Environment Canada scientists standing beside Lake Winnipeg with an EcoMapper

Field work with team of Environment Canada scientists testing the ECOMapper, which has the ability to create a “snapshot” of the entire physical and chemical makeup of a body of water


Image of an Environment Canada scientist reaching over a bridge with equipment to sample water quality

Water quality sampling is conducted throughout the year at key points on major tributaries to Lake Winnipeg.

Science Deliverable 4: Addressing critical knowledge gaps in lake nutrient dynamics relative to changes in nutrient loads to Lake Winnipeg

Projects and Progress 2012-2013 to 2013-2014

  • Filling Critical Knowledge Gaps with Respect to Nutrient Dynamics and Loads to Lake Winnipeg
    • As part of our research on Lake Winnipeg and its major tributaries, Environment Canada is evaluating the composition and amount of nutrients flowing into the lake. Using stable isotopes, genetics and other biological tracers, Environment Canada scientists are investigating the major sources of these nutrients, how they vary over the season and among years, their bio-availability to algal cells, and how they influence the risk of harmful algal blooms. Part of this research is conducted aboard the research vessel M.V. Namao, allowing scientists to measure algal growth and toxicity, nutrient uptake, cell storage and nitrogen fixation.
    • A lot of the nutrients that flow into Lake Winnipeg each year are stored in the muddy sediment on the bottom of the lake and then mixed back into the lake during strong wind events. This is a process called nutrient recycling. Environment Canada scientists are investigating the importance of nutrient recycling in the lake. The large amount of nutrients stored in the sediment in the lake bottom could mean that, even with a reduction in nutrients entering the lake, it may take a while to see improvements in water quality. To better understand this situation, scientists are measuring the amount and the way nutrients are released from the lake bottom over the year. These and other measures will be used to improve nutrient management models. They will also help to develop a way to predict the risk of harmful algal blooms as conditions in the lake and its watershed change.
Report a problem or mistake on this page
Please select all that apply:

Privacy statement

Thank you for your help!

You will not receive a reply. For enquiries, contact us.

Date modified: