Perspective: Pale green

April 7, 2009

Manitobans like to think we’re ahead of the green game because we have a plethora of provincial parks, no stinky tar sands and we don’t burn dirty coal to power our homes.

All that — plus a pretty good record on geothermal heat and relatively clean water — is true. But when you dig a little deeper, especially into the behaviour of average Manitobans, the picture isn’t so pristine.

Despite a lot of incremental, small-scale government initiatives, Manitoba is falling behind on a lot of green things.

Our power is so cheap that we’re terrible at turning the lights off, which leaves us less clean power to sell to Americans who would otherwise burn dirty coal.

We drink more bottled water than most Canadians, Statistics Canada says, and even when we can recycle, a lot of us don’t. Winnipeg is still years away from the kind of curbside composting program Toronto, Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia have, and the Brady Road Landfill is the largest dump in Canada that’s not capturing methane gas.

We’re still the only major Canadian city without rapid transit, despite an almost surreally frustrating debate that dates back to Mayor Steve Juba, and the city has fallen short of the eye-popping ridership increases other cities have enjoyed recently.

Even though other jurisdictions are banning plastic shopping bags and bottled water, both those initiatives are stalled by half-measures or circular debates here.

A recent wide-ranging survey by Statistics Canada on household environmental practices shows Manitobans are either stuck in the middle of the pack or on the bottom rung of many day-to-day green practices. That’s a bad thing for a province with few big polluters and where experts agree all Manitobans must do their part if the air and water is to get any cleaner. And it suggests that a sprinkling of government initiatives haven’t worked so well.


Other cities are pumping billions into transit overhauls and seeing double digit growth in the number of riders.

Meanwhile, Winnipeg is still trying to line up the cash to get speedy buses running to the University of Manitoba, and LRT continues to be a glimmer in mayor Sam Katz’s eye that could muddy the debate.

Everyone has an opinion on how to fix Winnipeg’s dated transit system, whether it’s more buses on existing routes, a new light-rail system, bus rapid transit or even an aerial tramway idea floated by St. Norbert Coun. Justin Swandel.

Critics say Winnipeg lags behind major centres and that the city is all talk and no action on transit, especially rapid transit, which had a five-year setback when Katz scrapped former mayor Glen Murray’s plan in favour of more spending on recreation.

These days, Katz is back on the bus. He met with Federal Transportation Minister John Baird late last month in the hopes of getting more money for a rapid transit system that could include a bus corridor from the U of M to south Main Street, and an ultra-lightweight rail system to keep people moving to the University of Winnipeg.

University of Manitoba architecture dean David Witty said he’s glad to see rapid transit action, but wishes it had happened years ago.

“The point is that right now we seem to be very much followers,” he said, pointing to Ottawa as an example of a winter city with an impressive, multi-billion dollar transit strategy.

Winnipeg struggles with underfunding for transit and needs a transit plan that encompasses the entire capital region, he said.

“In my view, we are not at the stage that we should be at,” he said. “If we hope to attract industry and investment and people who seek quality of life, we therefore must invest in those things that affect quality of life. Investment in transportation is a key one.”

The city announced plans for the $327-million bus corridor from Queen Elizabeth Way to the U of M last fall, but so far funding is only secured for the first leg to Jubilee Avenue.

Until the new plans go through, Winnipeg is stuck with an aging transit system that lacks some services other cities take for granted. Winnipeg Transit got a boost in 2006 with a $142-million upgrade aimed at improving bus shelters, setting up automated fare collection and designating more diamond lanes, among other efforts.

Automated “next stop” announcements and security cameras are now in place, but some of the other proposals have yet to materialize. Others have had setbacks, like the prototype hybrid ‘bendy’ bus that didn’t measure up, or the heated bus shelters that seem better designed for autumn in Toronto than winter in Winnipeg.

Despite all the challenges, Winnipeg Transit ridership rose by 3.5 per cent last year. That’s not quite the 11.5 per cent growth in bus ridership that Phoenix, AZ enjoyed or the 23 per cent increase in Fargo, but better than the ridership drop Winnipeg experienced in 2002.


We might be the country’s breadbasket but we’re not the speediest province to embrace organics. That honour goes to British Columbia, where more than half of people often or always buy organic. Maybe it’s the climate, or the green vibe the west coast is known for. But if that’s the case, why is Alberta hot on the tail of B.C.?

It’s all about the money, said Alberta Organic Producers Association administrator Kathy Petterson.

“Alberta is a much wealthier province than Manitoba. That’s the main issue,” said Petterson. “If people have the money they’re going to make a choice that is more expensive, because they know it’s worth it.”

Manitoba also lags on organics production.

The number of certified producers and processors in Manitoba has been going up by about 10 per cent per year, said Manitoba Agriculture, Food and Rural Initiatives organic specialist John Hollinger. But there are still just around 270 producers and 30 processors in total, a drop in the bucket compared to the market needs.

“We wish we could be doing better, because there’s still more demand out there than we can supply,” he said. “We have only a certain number of producers that want to commit to organic every year.”

Going organic isn’t easy for a conventional farmer, and Manitoba doesn’t offer much in the way of big incentives. Farmers going organic can get up to $800 to offset paperwork costs, a program that’s had about 30 people sign up since it launched last year.

Elsewhere in North America, some regions are way ahead, and not just the ones you’d expect, like balmy California. Minnesota is in the top ten for organic production in the United States. They’ve had incentive programs for years, as well as knowledgable staff in the government, said Hollinger.

“Just having money in place is a good thing, but to have people in place that are knowledgable and they can help people along, that makes a difference too,” he said.

Hollinger said the biggest challenge for organic producers in Manitoba is the lack of major urban populations. Some American states have plenty of big cities to ply their wares, but Manitoba has no bigger fish than Winnipeg.


With a few unruly exceptions, Winnipeggers like their lawns green and dandelion-free, and there’s no greater proof than the city’s love of pesticides.
The last time Statistics Canada broke down the data by city, Winnipeg was the highest chemical pesticide user in Canada for lawns and gardens, nosing past Regina and Saskatoon. Across Manitoba 43 per cent of people used chemical pesticides on their lawns and gardens in 2007, second only to Saskatchewan, and we ranked as one of the top three users of synthetic fertilizers as well.

Compare those figures to Quebec, where the rate of chemical pesticide use on lawns is just four per cent. It’s a staggering drop, but don’t go congratulating Quebecers on their environmental compassion just yet. Cosmetic pesticides are banned in that province, and have been since 2003.
Ontario will follow suit later this year, with a ban kicking off on Earth Day, and a similar ban goes into effect in Prince Edward Island in 2010.
Environmentalists say a ban would make a big difference in Manitoba, but might be a tough sell.

“I think there would be a lot of push back, but at the same time I think there would be a lot of people that would be really in support of it,” said Manitoba Eco-Network Executive Director Anne Lindsey, who works with the Campaign for Pesticide Reduction.

The issue is complicated by Manitoba’s notorious mosquitoes, she said. Even though the group tries to focus on lawn care, questions always head in the pest control direction.

Manitobans might support a cosmetic pesticide ban, she said, but many would stop short from putting the kibosh on malathion in Winnipeg, the last major city in Canada that regularly uses the chemical to kill mosquitoes.


Manitoba is so-so on the recycling front. We barely compost. Capturing the methane emitted by decaying garbage at the city dump has been stalled for years, and product stewardship programs for old electronics and hazardous materials are still just talk.

On the whole, the city’s waste management program is stuck in the 1990s.
Statistics Canada says just 88 per cent of Manitobans who have access to recycling programs actually use them, nine per cent less than Canada’s average.

But there’s a flip side. Industry experts say Winnipeg’s recycling facility is a model for other cities, and that participation rates don’t tell the whole story. Winnipeggers are actually recycling more than they throw away, year over year.

Winnipeg has tossed around the idea of curbside pickup like the program in Prince Edward Island but never followed through, and according to the latest data, three quarters of Manitobans throw their organic waste in the trash.
The province talked for years about a stewardship model for e-waste that would see industry pick up the tab for getting rid of obsolete computers or stereos, but so far nothing has come of it, except for annual round-ups where people can drop off old electronics at designated locations.

You’ve got even fewer options for household hazardous waste. Old AA batteries or toxic cleaning supplies aren’t supposed to go in the trash, but getting rid of them safely means driving over to Miller Environmental on Hekla Ave.

Some say Manitoba’s not-so-green reputation isn’t warranted. The city’s solid waste manager Darryl Drohomerski says participation rates don’t tell us how much waste is actually kept out of landfills, and points out provinces with high rates aren’t always better recyclers.

More than 90 per cent of Newfoundlanders say they recycle, for example, but that’s questionable when you consider two thirds of them have no way to recycle paper, according to the same Statistics Canada study.

Cities like Saskatoon, which has no free curbside recycling program, are looking to Winnipeg as an example, said Drohomerski.

And in Winnipeg, the volume of waste we recycle is going up faster than the volume of trash sent to the landfill. In 2008 Winnipeg produced 45,560 tonnes of recycling, 1,700 tonnes more than the year before. Trash went up too, but by less than 500 tonnes.

Green-minded companies in the city, like Samborski Garden Supplies, have stepped in to offer compost pick-up for businesses and residential customers, albeit for a fee.

The Doer government’s March budget also included a new levy meant to force Winnipeg to get more serious about recycling. City hall will have to pay $10 for every tonne of trash that goes into Brady Road Landfill. Most of that money will get funnelled back into city recycling programs, but it could be painful at first.

It’s hard to give props to provinces motivated as much by a lack of land as green mindedness. P.E.I. is one of the best recyclers and composters in Canada, but that’s partly because it’s running out of landfill space.

Then there’s the bedevilling issue of plastic shopping bags, the issue that made tiny Leaf Rapids an international poster child when it mandated the country’s first ever ban. But the white baggies that clog landfills and harm wildlife have left other levels of government ducking and weaving.

Winnipeg declined to ban the bags, and the Doer government is working on a semi-ban that it promises will cut the use of plastic bags in half over five years. The plan is being developed by the industry – the stores that use bags and the people who make them – and will involve more recycling depots in stores as well as maybe the chance to toss baggies in city blue boxes, said Manitoba Conservation Pollution Prevention Branch Director Laurie Streich.
Non-recyclable bags will be banned, but there are very few of those in circulation now.

All that won’t be in place until the end of the year or early next. In the meantime, Conservation Minister Stan Struthers has said he hopes Manitobans will embrace reusable shopping bags, and that’s happening to some degree. Manitoba is in the middle of the pack when it comes to reusable tote bags – 40 per cent of Manitobans often or sometimes use them, and 30 per cent always do, on par with the national average.


There’s been tons of talk about P-free dish soap, the hog barn ban and the city of Winnipeg’s whopping big bill to fix up its sewer system. Those are part of what’s needed to shrink the amount of nutrients – nitrogen and phosphorus – trickling into Lake Winnipeg from crops and human and animal waste.

Other, less sexy parts include dozens of finicky regulatory changes, many still in the works, telling farmers how to fertilize or where to graze their cattle and banning new septic fields north of Winnipeg.

Despite all that, the lake still isn’t getting any cleaner.

“There’s certainly progress, but it’s going to take some time before the improvements are noticed,” said Bill Barlow, head of the Lake Winnipeg Stewardship Board which is working on a one-year progress report following it’s landmark study of the lake.

Experts say, and the province acknowledges, that Manitobans have not even managed to halt the increase in nutrients yet, though the rate of increase is hopefully slowing. It could be years before nutrients start to decline and the stinky blue-green algal blooms they spawn start to diminish.

Experts say Manitobans must settle in for a long process. It took decades to dirty up the lake, and it will take decades to fix it. And there’s no one big fix. It takes dozens of regulatory changes, millions in sewage lagoon and septic system repairs and changes to the daily habits of gardeners and dishwashers all over the province. Farmers have to quit letting their cows poop near rivers and over-fertilizing their crops. Homeowners have to stop buying dishwasher soap with phosphorus, which will be banned in 2010, anyway. And the city of Winnipeg has to keep plugging away at a $1.8 billion upgrade of its treatment plants and sewers.

There are also a couple frustrating questions that aren’t answered yet. Manitobans don’t really know the final price tag for all the fixes, and we don’t have a particularly good target against which to measure our progress. The province has said it wants to shrink nutrients to 1970 levels, which means a 13 per cent reduction in nitrogen and 10 per cent reduction in phosphorus. But some of the best water scientists say that’s a useless target, and a better one would be to shrink phosphorus alone by 25 per cent. There’s no consensus.


It’s Manitoba’s dirty little secret – we suck at energy conservation. Domestic electricity load is expected to grow 2.3 per cent every year until 2011/2012 while Saskatchewan’s power use shrinks.

The best example? Last month’s Earth Hour. Millions of people worldwide turned off their lights to take a symbolic stand against climate change but Winnipeg’s power-use actually increased.

Good programs like PowerSmart that help homeowners fund energy efficient renovations haven’t gone far enough and haven’t delayed the construction of new northern dams needed to feed Manitoba’s power hunger. That’s according to the Public Utilities Board, the not-exactly-radical provincial regulator.

Environmentalists and even former NDP energy minister Tim Sale have lamented Manitoba’s lagging attempts to conserve power, and the Manitoba Tories have suggested one remedy might be to bring rates more in line with actual costs or the export price. Getting dinged with heftier power bills might be the only thing that compels Manitobans save power, but the Doer government has long argued that low rates help bolster the economy and lure manufacturing jobs.

Manitobans are even bad at turning down the thermostats to save natural gas. During the winter, 57 per cent of households in Canada with a thermostat in their home lowered the temperature at night. Once again, Prince Edward Island kicked butt, with 64% turning down the dial. At 52 per cent, Manitobans were the least likely.

The province also lags on wind power. We have some of the best wind anywhere, but just one wind farm, the one in St. Leon. Another is in the works nearby and the Doer government has promised many more, but Hydro has been slow to embrace turbines. It’s tough to make the economics of a wind farm work when power from an established northern dam can be made at virtually no cost.


The Manitoba government has a hodge-podge of departments, agencies and Crown corporations with their fingers in the green pie. It’s brutal trying to tell who does what.

But at least there are people on the job.

Winnipeg has had a neutered environment committee for years and just lost its one and only environmental staffer. Alec Stuart, who was once described as working alone in the basement of the property department, resigned last month. He stepped down just a month after nearly all the members of the mayor’s environmental advisory committee resigned in disgust at their lack of resources and clout. Mayor Sam Katz has since reconstituted the committee, which will be the third incarnation of the advisory body under his watch.
The one bright spot at the city is new Chief Administrative Officer Glen Laubenstein, who appears to be genuinely committed to sustainable development.

The province, meanwhile, has tons of staff, but they are scattered over so many offices it’s often a mind-bender to figure out who does what.

Conservation still enforces sewage regulations and environmental assessments but Water Stewardship has a lot of the experts, too, and handles a lot of the Lake Winnipeg nutrient reduction policies.

Energy and climate change issues are spread over staff in Science, Technology, Energy and Mines (STEM) but Manitoba Hydro has a gaggle of green gurus and manages most of the incentive programs.

Green Manitoba ostensibly handles some of the product stewardship programs that have been slow to get off the ground and some wonder what the point of such an agency is.

There’s also another gap in Manitoba’s green manpower – good critics. Unlike Ontario and British Columbia, where environmental think tanks and activists are diverse, well-funded and vocal, Manitoba has only a handful of really active critics, and the same voices tend to raise the same stinks about the same issues without a lot of new research to bolster their arguments.


Manitoba Hydro

Premier Gary Doer touts Manitoba’s clean energy all over the continent, and he’s right – Manitoba is uniquely blessed with huge water-power capacity that produces virtually no greenhouse gas emissions. After two decades of stagnation, Hydro power has new currency and the Crown corporation is about to embark on the biggest building spree the province has ever seen. That will create three new multi-billion-dollar dams – Wuskwatim, Conawapa and Keeyask – and help the province bolster its power exports and keep homegrown rates among the lowest on the continent. And the province hasn’t even tapped into half the power potential of northern rivers yet.

It’s not all perfect, though. Hydro dams flood large swaths of northern land, some of it critical to indigenous culture and history. That has prompted American environmental groups to argue that hydro power isn’t really green at all. And, cheap power and a humongous monopoly power company means the province is sometimes slow at getting started on new technology like wind and solar.


We’ve got a lot of them, they are generally pristine gems and the province just gobsmacked environmentalists by banning logging in provincial parks.
The province announced a batch of new protected areas, and it has launched a pretty interesting experiment that will see the Doer government work with several First Nations to turn much of the East Side of Lake Winnipeg into a huge new park and possibly a UNESCO World Heritage site. It’s an area of boreal forest the size of Belgium.

Even without that, a 2007 study by the Wilderness Committee showed the province has way more park acres than Saskatchewan, Alberta even though the province doesn’t spend comparatively as much money on them.

Last fall, the province shocked local wilderness activists by banning logging in provincial parks – long the demand of countless petitions, rallies and post-card campaigns and the source justifiable outrage from nature lovers.
Tolko Industries Ltd. and Tembec Inc. will cease logging in Whiteshell, Nopiming, Clearwater and Grass River provincial parks by the end of the month. Logging will only be allowed in Duck Mountain because phasing it out would cost too many local jobs.


It’s not perfect, but the numbers don’t lie. The province has 6,000 heat pumps installed already, and that’s roughly a quarter of all the geothermal systems in Canada, according to industry experts. There are new grants and tax incentives to get homeowners over the big initial installation cost – though the paperwork has been slow to be released – and there are about 50 homes homes in Waverley West that will be heated and cooled using the earth’s natural energy. That’s a far cry from an entirely geothermal subdivision, which was the original promise, and the Doer government talks a better game on geothermal than they actually play, but there’s no denying the industry here is scrambling to keep up with demand.

Bike paths

The province has jumped on the bike path bandwagon, and the city’s increase in spending on trails, bike lanes and pedestrian improvements has been quite remarkable.

In 2006, the city’s active transportation funding was piddly – $200,000. Since then, it’s increased exponentially every year to reach $3.5 million this year. Earlier this month, the city unveiled it’s bike path building plan for the year, which includes a new path connecting Kildonan Park to Waterfront Drive.

Besides some frustrating delays getting last year’s list of city bike paths built, the one big problem is that many of the paths are meant for leisurely recreation on a warm summer day. There’s not enough bike routes that give cyclist a safe and direct commute to work. But it’s clear the city is much more serious about cycling.


The Wheat City is kicking Winnipeg’s butt on virtually all things green. The city has a partial pesticide ban, a “French-fry bus” that runs on used restaurant grease, and it boasted a 10 per cent increase in transit ridership in 2007.

And, Brandon is about to enter into a public-private partnership with a company to capture methane from its landfill to recycle as power or heat. Construction of the gear needed to do that could start immediately, said the city’s environmental coordinator Tom Keep.

The city has an active environment committee with real clout, a long-term strategic green plan and, unlike Winnipeg, it has tallied the exact amount of greenhouse gases the entire city produces to it can start shrinking them.
That’s 1,327,512 tonnes, much of that due to the Koch fertilizer plant that’s among the province’s biggest polluters.

“We have those number and now we can work on those to reduce them,” said Keep. “We’re gonna set some high goals and work toward them.”
Brandon is even planning some quirky community stuff, like a “free to you” weekend in the spring and fall where residents can put out their unwanted furniture in one central location for people to scrounge. That’s could be a vintage collector’s dream, and saves room at the landfill.

And, if the Doer government keeps dawdling on dealing with plastic shopping bags, Brandon’s environment committee will decide how to tackle the bags this fall.

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