IJC sends Red River Nutrient Target Recommendations to Governments

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Kevin Bunch
September 16, 2020
lake winnipeg research vessel

After years of complex scientific study, independent review, a public comment period and two public hearings, the IJC has submitted its recommendations to the Canadian and US governments on nutrient load targets and concentration objectives to improve water quality and reduce the frequency and severity of algal blooms in the Red River.

In its report, the IJC recommends a total phosphorus objective of 0.15 milligrams per liter (0.15 parts per million) and a total nitrogen objective of 1.15 mg/l (1.15 ppm) for the river. The recommended annual loading targets – a measure of the average concentration in the water multiplied by the total volume of water flowing past the international boundary – are 1,400 tons for phosphorus and 9,525 tons for nitrogen.

This is 50 percent of the target load for the Red River. The other half comes from nutrients entering from the Canadian side of the watershed, from the community of Emerson, Manitoba, at the international boundary, and then northward through the province toward Lake Winnipeg.

The transboundary Red River forms near the borders of South Dakota, North Dakota and Minnesota and flows north into Manitoba, draining into Lake Winnipeg. The Red River watershed is large and significant in the Canadian Prairie and US Great Plains region. It is a complex watershed due to flat, slowly descending geography and land use changes from prairie and wetlands to agriculture and cities. Infrastructure such as the White Rock Dam has been constructed over many decades to help control flooding. The lake and the river have historically and continue to be affected by water quality problems including excessive nutrients such as phosphorus and nitrogen. In Lake Winnipeg, this has led to chronic algal blooms since the late 1990s. 

“The problem has been getting worse over time and work that Manitoba has done indicates a significant amount of (nutrients) going into Lake Winnipeg comes from the Red River itself,” said Jim Ziegler, Minnesota Pollution Control Agency Detroit Lakes regional manager and a member of the IJC’s Red River Board. “For the Red River basin to deal with that issue, we have to understand the contributions coming from the different jurisdictions.”

algal blooms nearshore winnipeg
Algal blooms dominate the nearshore of Lake Winnipeg in July 2018. Credit: NASA/Lake Winnipeg Research Consortium

The IJC’s water quality objectives and targets recommendations relate to the board’s mandate to report on water quality in the Red River at the boundary to help the two governments meet commitments under the Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909.

The IJC has monitored water quality in the Red River since 1969, when the two governments approved the creation of the Red River Pollution Board and charged it with reporting on river water quality at the border. When the current Red River Board was formed in 2001 from the consolidation of the pollution board and the Souris-Red Rivers Engineers Board, it also was tasked with recommending strategies to address water quality issues and the health of the aquatic ecosystem in the watershed.

Advice provided by the IJC under the Boundary Waters Treaty is not binding. It is now up to the Canadian and US governments to decide whether to approve the objectives and targets recommended by the IJC. Increases in nutrient concentrations and loads have occurred over decades and reducing nutrient inputs to the Red River will be a major challenge for both countries. The IJC believes the adoption of these proposed objectives and targets is an important step in addressing the complex issues related to nutrients in the river and watershed.

Red River flowing Manitoba
The Red River flowing through Manitoba. Credit: Manitoba Agriculture and Resource Development

Currently, the Red River Board reports on five water quality objectives: dissolved oxygen, total dissolved solids, chloride, sulphate and fecal bacteria (E. coli).  Water quality monitoring is conducted by Environment and Climate Change Canada and results are shared with the board twice per year and compared to the five water quality objectives. 

The IJC reports exceedances to the water quality objectives to governments and may, through the board and participating agencies, conduct studies to understand the source of the exceedances and encourage lead agencies to take appropriate action to prevent or mitigate potential problems.  If approved by the two federal governments, the proposed nutrients objectives and targets would be added to the list of five objectives and would be included in the board’s reporting.

The IJC thanks everyone who participated in public hearings in Fargo, North Dakota, and Winnipeg, Manitoba, in early 2020 as well as those who provided input during a public comment period.  More information on the proposed nutrient objectives and targets, including the background reports prepared by the IRRB and its Water Quality Committee, are available on the board’s web site.

Work to develop the nutrient objectives and targets was done with the support of the IJC, the board and partner agencies including the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, North Dakota Department of Environmental Quality, Manitoba Agriculture and Resource Development, Buffalo Red River Watershed District, Environment and Climate Change Canada, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, US Environmental Protection Agency and US Geological Survey.

The IJC and its partners are dedicated to improving the health of the Red River and Lake Winnipeg. A story map detailing the IJC’s history in the basin has been developed to provide a historical, visual guide and can be found on the IJC website.

red river farm field
The Red River and a tributary, with farm field along the banks. Credit: Lake Winnipeg Research Consortium
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Kevin Bunch

Kevin Bunch is a writer-communications specialist at the IJC’s US Section office in Washington, D.C.