• International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) intern Gillian Kiessling and project coordinator Karla Zubrycki pack up water sampling equipment kits for schools. (Photo courtesy: IISD Water Program)

Collecting water samples from the Lake Winnipeg watershed is a massive task, but a group of high school students is up for the challenge.

Students from eighteen high schools will spend the next couple of weeks collecting various data on the watershed — including phosphate and nitrate levels, turbidity, and species identification — as part of a citizen science project initiated by the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) and Canadian Geographic Education.

Last year Can Geo Education hosted a one-day BioBlitz in Riding Mountain National Park, Man., but the magnitude of this year’s project is much larger.

“One of the biggest challenges with data collection is that there just isn’t enough man power to go out and actually do it,” says Karla Zubrycki, project and communications manager for the IISD Water Program. “But if citizens are willing and able then this barrier is broken down quite a bit, and hopefully we can make credible data available.”

The project will also be a hands-on educational experience for the students, demonstrating the importance of sampling and the interconnectedness of the water system.

“We have classes from Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and North Dakota sampling different parts of the watershed, and I want students to realize that even though they’re in different countries or different provinces they’re all in contact with the same water,” says Zubrycki. “What happens in Minot, N.D. affects the water in Winnipeg.”

One of the primary threats to the watershed has been an increase in algal blooms as a result of nutrient influx—particularly of phosphorus and nitrogen—which is why these two elements have been selected for students to sample. The United Nations has called over-fertilization of water systems one of the top ten most serious environmental threats facing humanity in this century.

Once the sampling is complete, the data will be analyzed and made available on open data catalogues. As of now, funding will sustain the project until December, but high interest makes Zubrycki hopeful that the program will be extended.