Under Siege: 5 Things Threatening Lake Winnipeg & the Red River Watershed

By David Janeson

Lake Winnipeg is beautiful. There’s nowhere we’d rather spend our days.

Unfortunately, Lake Winnipeg is under siege by a multitude of environmental threats. So is the entire Lake Winnipeg Basin, a vast catchment area that feeds Lake Winnipeg and waterways further north. All five of these acute threats are worsening as we speak.

1. Agricultural Runoff

The Red River and its tributaries drain a largely agricultural region covering parts of Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Minnesota, and North and South Dakota. Crop types practices vary throughout the area, with pastureland and wheat more common in its western extent and corn and canola prevalent in its eastern reaches.

Unfortunately, modern farming practices don’t vary as much. Exacerbated by aggressive tilling, and longer dry spells, topsoil loss is muddying tributary waterways, choking key water plants and upsetting biological balances. Agricultural pollution affects drinking water supplies, too.

2. Increasing Wastewater Volumes

Soil loss is bad enough; fertilizer pollution is worse still. Excessive fertilizer use affects waterways’ chemical composition, promoting harmful algae blooms that affect beneficial plant and microbe populations. This disruption works its way up the food chain, robbing anglers of prized catches.

3. Invasive Species

Aquatic invasive species are a growing menace in Lake Winnipeg. Ironically, invasive zebra and quagga mussels effectively filter lakewater, improving clarity and color. But they’re devastating for native marine species; they belong in the beautiful lakes and rivers of Eurasia, whence they came.

4. Shorter Winters & Longer Droughts

Climate change is the defining political, social, and economic issue of our time.


“Its importance can’t be overstated. And, unsurprisingly, its effects are being felt right here in the Lake Winnipeg watershed, right now.” — David Janeson


As winters grow shorter and summer droughts extend into fall, the entire regional ecosystem finds itself under strain. For instance, while it’s nice (for humans) to mothball the winter coat in March, many native plant and animal species require long winters to thrive. Others depend on regular summer rains to replenish their water supplies and ensure an uninterrupted reproductive cycle.

5. Growing Irrigation Demands

By any reasonable standard, the Lake Winnipeg Basin isn’t parched. Depending on where you stand in the southern portion of the basin, you’ll soak up at least 45 centimeters of rain per year (including snow water equivalent). That’s a far cry from the western edge of the Great Plains, in the rain shadow of the Rockies, where you’ll be lucky to see 30 centimeters in a typical year.

Still, modern agriculture requires lots of water, and irrigation demands are rising accordingly throughout the basin. This affects neighboring south-flowing watersheds as well, but it’s more acute in our neck of the woods, where the climate is drier. Again, it’s exacerbated by longer droughts and fleeting snowpack.

Do Your Part!

Are you worried about the long-term health of Lake Winnipeg? You’re in good company. And you don’t need a water management or environmental studies degree to make a difference.

If you live anywhere in the Lake Winnipeg watershed, on either side of the U.S.-Canada border, you can make a meaningful impact simply by resolving to think intentionally about the water you use, the waste you produce, and your lifestyle’s impact on the environment. Let’s roll up our sleeves and be the change we want to see in the world.


David Janeson owns Gull Harbour Marina, a seasonal lakeside resort on beautiful Hecla Island, Manitoba.