Working together with nature improves water quality  

Water knows no boundaries. As it flows through communities and across borders, regional collaboration is the key to understanding and taking-action on shared water challenges. Since 2017, a project by the Centre for Indigenous Environmental Resources (CIER) called the Collaborative Leadership Initiative (CLI) brought together 16 municipal and 11 First Nations elected leaders to make these decisions together. The facilitated process advances reconciliation, and develops regional solutions to complex shared challenges affecting communities such as the enormous task of healing Lake Winnipeg. CLI leaders agreed they needed to work together to help save the lake from increasing pollution and deteriorating water quality.

The key to a recovery of Lake Winnipeg is its massive surrounding watershed that ultimately drains excessive nitrogen and phosphorous nutrients and other pollutants into this massive body of water causing algae, aquatic plant overgrowth and other contaminates. CLI leaders decided that a coordinated network of natural infrastructure was needed across the Lake Winnipeg Basin. Natural infrastructure uses nature – plants, soils, wetlands, and other features – to improve water quality at a fraction of the cost of traditional ‘grey’ infrastructure. It also provides a range of other benefits, such as providing spaces for recreation and habitat for wildlife.

In 2021, the leaders took the first steps towards realizing their vision through three natural infrastructure pilot projects to improve the health of the watershed that were tailored to the needs of each community. Three CLI communities in partnership with CIER, led pilot projects: Sagkeeng First Nation, the Rural Municipality of Rosser, and the Village of Dunnottar.

In Sagkeeng, community staff, CIER, and Social and Solidarity Economy (SSE) worked together on a shoreline stabilization project to protect the community from erosion, a persistent challenge due to Sagkeeng’s location where Lake Winnipeg and the Winnipeg River meet. The project involved grading a 200-metre-long section of riverbank in the community and planting 550 native trees. Using primarily willow and poplar trees, these fast-growing, deep rooted systems stabilize the slope and reduce the runoff of harmful excess nutrients. The project demonstrates how vegetation complements rock barriers already in place to protect against erosion in Sagkeeng, in addition to the added benefits of cleaning the air, water, and beautifying the community.

In Rosser, community staff worked with CIER and SSE to harvest bulrushes, grasses, and other plants (this combined organic matter is called ‘biomass’) from locations within Rosser. Because these plants absorb so many nutrients from the water and soil, harvesting them before this biomass decomposes stops the release of excess nutrients into Lake Winnipeg. Thirty bales of it were harvested and are now being stored indoors. Eventually, the bales will be used by a new biomass heating system in a municipal building that has the potential to both displace natural gas, and reduce the municipality’s energy costs.

In Dunnottar, community staff, CIER, and Ecological Restoration Services partnered on a project to reduce nutrient discharge from Dunnottar’s wastewater lagoon by cultivating and harvesting duckweed. Like other biomass, duckweed can act as a vegetative filter for water, cleaning out contaminants. The duckweed grew in enclosures over the summer and approximately 230kg of duckweed was harvested in October. Just like the biomass in the Rosser project, removing it in the fall also removed all of the nutrients that the duckweed absorbed as it grew in the lagoon over the summer.

These pilot projects are just the first steps. The CLI leaders have begun mapping natural assets across their territory to provide a baseline for planning future natural infrastructure projects at a larger scale, critical to saving Lake Winnipeg and build climate change resiliency across the region.

CLI is expanding its reach across Canada to specific communities with shared water challenges that require collaborative innovation to overcome barriers to achieve mutually beneficial outcomes. For more information:

These projects were made possible by support from Environment and Climate Change Canada, The Conservation Trust, Londre Bodywear, and MacDon.