People passionate about nature

Citizen Science for Lake Winnipeg

How you can help the Lake Winnipeg Foundation collect important data

The health of Lake Winnipeg and its surrounding ecosystem is an important issue for many Manitobans, and a relatively new project gives local people and schools the chance to make a difference. The Lake Winnipeg Community-Based Monitoring Network (LWCBMN) launched in 2016, and is getting valuable information into the hands of the Lake Winnipeg Foundation (LWF). To find out more about the program, we spoke with Chelsea Lobson, LWF's CBM Co-ordinator about what LWF has learned and how they want to see the program grow. 

Above: LWF's CBM Co-Ordinator, Chelsea Lobson - Photo by: Paul Mutch

NM: Can you tell us a little bit about the Lake Winnipeg Community-Based Monitoring Network?

Lobson: The Lake Winnipeg Community-Based Monitoring Network (LWCBMN) mobilizes citizens to collect water samples from sites across Manitoba. These samples are then tested in a lab to determine phosphorus concentrations, phosphorus being the nutrient responsible for blue-green algae blooms on Manitoba’s lakes. Currently, a water data deficiency exists within the Lake Winnipeg watershed; we don’t know where the phosphorus is coming from – and without this information, we can’t make evidence-based decisions on phosphorus-reduction strategies. LWCBMN data are filling in the gaps and helping Manitoba move out of this ‘data deficit.’


NM: How is the data you’re collecting through this program different than other research happening in the watershed? Why is it important?

Lobson: Phosphorus is washed off the land into local waterways during snow melts, floods and heavy rainfall events; if you miss these runoff events, you miss the bulk of the phosphorus being carried into our waterways. LWCBMN volunteers live, work or commute by their sample sites, which makes it relatively easy to do frequent sampling, especially during the spring melt. Having volunteers nearby also means they can be mobilized quickly to grab a sample during a rain event. This kind of responsiveness means LWCBMN can capture an accurate picture of phosphorus runoff in Manitoba.


NM: What is the data you’ve collected so far telling you about the lake and its surrounding ecosystems?

Lobson: LWCBMN data has shown high spatial variation in phosphorus loads between sub-watersheds, which means that certain areas of land are contributing more phosphorus to local waterways than other areas of land. For example, two sub-watersheds can be directly adjacent to one another yet have very different phosphorus contributions. This highlights the importance of sampling at many stations. Now that we know the various contributions of each sampling site to Lake Winnipeg, we can identify phosphorus hotspots—localized areas that are contributing more phosphorus than other areas. Identifying phosphorus hotspots on the landscape creates opportunities to target funding and action to those areas to achieve the greatest return on investment in terms of phosphorus reduction.


NM: Was there anything that surprised you about your findings since this program began?

Lobson: The most surprising thing to me was the percentage of phosphorus loading that occurred in a relatively short period during the spring. Every year is going to be a little different but, in 2017, LWCBMN identified 1,348 tonnes of phosphorus entering our waterways, 96 per cent of which occurred during the spring. I’m excited to analyze the 2018 data and see how it differs.


NM: Why citizen science? How does asking the general population to get involved help your program?

Lobson: Citizen science is expanding water-monitoring capacity at relatively little cost, while producing credible and useful data for freshwater protection. Because of the difference in phosphorus contributions from one sub-watershed to another, it’s important to sample many sites frequently. Working with volunteers who are close to their sites allows us to collect a sample with a moment’s notice. Furthermore, at a time when institutional capacity for water monitoring is limited, citizens can play an important role in enriching our own understanding. Our citizen science data is compatible with government data, so we are contributing to a robust dataset that answers critical policy questions while also engaging citizens in water issues – it’s a win-win!

Above: Chelsea Lobson (centre) joins volunteers Peter Williams and Danica Racicot as they collect water samples at Cooks Creek as part of the Lake Winnipeg Community-Based Monitoring Network - Photo by: Paul Mutch

NM: What do the citizens involved in LWCBMN gain from their experience? What do you hope they take away from it?

Lobson: LWCBMN provides people with the opportunity to roll up their sleeves and get involved in on-the-ground efforts to protect our water. Many volunteers are already very knowledgeable about the land and water in their communities. These citizens have observed changes in their local water quality over the years and are looking for answers. I think they feel ownership and pride over the data they are collecting, knowing they are contributing to solutions, and I hope that we can provide them with scientific data to back up the changes that they’ve been noticing.


NM: How has the program evolved since its start in 2016?

Lobson: We’ve seen sustained and significant interest in LWCBMN, which has enabled tremendous network growth in a relatively short time. During LWCBMN’s first field season we partnered with two conservation districts to collect 200 samples from 12 sites. In 2017, LWCBMN collected 800 samples from 75 sites in partnership with five conservation districts. This year, we are expecting to collect 1,500 samples from over 100 sites, working with about 40 volunteers and nine conservation districts. The rapid growth of our program has attracted interest from multiple government agencies and many other conservation groups. This year, we are working on an inter-agency lab comparison study with Environment and Climate Change Canada, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, and Manitoba Sustainable Development to compare protocols and ensure that the data we are all collecting are compatible. LWCBMN is also now partnering with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, which has offered us use of its Morden Research and Development Centre to test our samples.


NM: What do you see for the future of this program?

Lobson: In the short-term, we hope to continue to grow the program by adding more sites and recruiting more volunteers. We are planning on expanding into the Winnipeg River System in 2019 and to begin monitoring agricultural beneficial management practices (BMPs) to see how effective different BMPs are at reducing phosphorus loading to local waterways. In the long-term, monitoring data becomes more valuable the more that you have, and we really need many years of LWCBMN data to ensure that we aren’t being misled by annual variation. We hope that because this program is volunteer-based, it will be sustainable and able to continue indefinitely.


NM: If people want to get involved how can they help?

Lobson: Interested volunteers can contact me by email ( Together, we can find a waterway near where they live, work or commute. We are operating at capacity for this season (2018) but have begun recruiting new volunteers and scouting new sites for 2019. Ideally, we’d like to train and equip volunteers in January or February, prior to the spring melt.