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Making Waves: Integrated Watershed Management Projects

In April 2021, The Province announced an initial investment of over $4 million to fund twelve projects aimed at examining the existing conditions in the Watershed and exploring ways to reduce the impacts of flooding and to address the health of the Muskoka River Watershed. The District of Muskoka is leading all these projects, in partnership with the Muskoka Watershed Council.

Background

The Muskoka River Watershed is facing pressures due to increased development, severe weather events resulting from the changing climate, increased contaminants (e.g., nutrients and road salt), management of invasive species, loss of species at risk habitat, and shoreline erosion. Residents are also concerned about water quality and quantity management and the impacts of flooding.

The Muskoka Watershed Advisory Group (MWAG) was appointed to advise the Minister of the Environment, Conservation and Parks (MECP) regarding priority geographic areas and issues in the Watershed. MWAG provided recommendations for projects across three key themes:

  • Integrated Watershed Management
  • Flood Mitigation
  • Watershed Enhancement

In 2020, the MWAG provided a report to the Minister, highlighting important issues facing the Muskoka River Watershed, including severity and risk of flooding, erosion and siltation, threats to water quality, threats to biodiversity and natural habitat, and the need for integrated watershed management.

Anticipated outcomes from projects
The outcomes of these projects will set the stage to design a comprehensive approach to watershed management under which land-use decisions, environmental projects, infrastructure projects, and broader public policy options can be determined. The initiative will support and advance the implementation of an Integrated Watershed Management approach for the Muskoka River Watershed by gathering information to:
  • Improve knowledge of the challenges facing the Muskoka River Watershed.
  • Better understand the causes of fluctuating water levels in the Muskoka River Watershed.
  • Improve understanding of erosion and siltation in the Muskoka River Watershed.
  • Improve knowledge of existing and emerging threats to water quality.
  • Improve knowledge of emerging threats to biodiversity and natural habitat.
Community Roundtable

The Community Roundtable (CRT) was established by the Muskoka Watershed Council (MWC) in 2021. Its mission is to promote and support the initiation of IWM in the Muskoka River watershed by 1) providing the District with input and advice on its initial suite of projects; and 2) engaging and educating the watershed community and contributing local input, knowledge, experience and guidance in the development of an integrated watershed management strategy for the Muskoka River Watershed.

The CRT includes MWC members, representatives from municipalities with lands within the Muskoka River Watershed, and members drawn from a variety of business interests, organizations, and communities across the watershed. CRT meetings are also open to the public.

For more information about the Community Roundtable or to participate, contact crt@muskokawatershed.org.

Project overviews and findings
 
1. Hydrological model
Project Overview: 

Develop a model that incorporates the ecological structure and dynamics of the Muskoka River Watershed and characterizes its functions, such as:

  • How floods originate and how they are distributed across the Watershed.
  • What cost-benefits are associated with watershed management actions.
  • The influence of climate change and land use on flood potential.
  • Scenarios for determining the best location and types of flood storage infrastructure (i.e., expanding wetlands and forest blocks).

The hydrological model will build on existing information and studies completed for the Muskoka River Watershed, such as: 

  • Existing open-source hydrologic, hydraulic, and real-time simulation models.
  • Streamflow data available from gauging stations located in the Watershed.
  • Existing floodplain mapping.

 Reports, Presentations and Articles:

2. Operational adjustments study
Project Overview:

Identify operational adjustments to inform water management planning in the Muskoka River Watershed that could reduce spring flooding, such as:

  • Mitigation strategies that focus on reducing the impacts of flooding and are responsive to where and why flooding occurs.
  • Opportunities to develop and implement models and systems that could enhance the ability to predict the magnitude and timing of floods.
  • Role of land use planning to minimize flood impacts and inform future land use decisions and policy.

Reports, Presentations and Articles:

3. Examine localized structural mitigation measures
Project Overview:

Explore conventional and green/natural infrastructure flood mitigation approaches for specific flood-prone areas of the Muskoka River Watershed. The structural mitigation options will include:

  • Impact of climate change on the water system and considerations for developing structural and non-structural flood mitigation tools.
  • Options for conventional and natural (green) infrastructure modifications to mitigate flooding.
  • Identification of scope, costs, and requirements for preliminary design.

Reports, Presentations and Articles:

4. Expand floodplain mapping
Project Overview:

Prepare floodplain mapping across unmapped and vulnerable areas prone to flooding in the Muskoka River Watershed. This project will include:

  • Light detection and ranging (LiDAR) survey data and imagery.
  • Results of hydraulic and hydrologic investigations.
  • Floodplain mapping for selected river reaches and lake areas.

Reports, Presentations and Articles:

5. Natural capital inventory
Project Overview:

Identify, assess, inventory, and map natural capital (including water, land, air, and renewable and non-renewable resources, such as plant and animal species, forests, air, water, and soils) within the Muskoka River Watershed. This includes a mapped inventory of critical natural features such as woodlands, wetlands, watercourse, and valley lands

Reports, Presentations and Articles:

Appendixes

A - Land Cover

B - Wetlands

C - Vernal Pools

D - Watercourses

E - Rare Species Habitat Suitability

F - Stormwater and Spring Runoff Capacity

G - Significant Wildlife Habitat

6. Water management plan review scoping study
Project Overview:

The Scoping Study will build on existing water quality data, and other information gathered and will include:

  • An assessment of the root causes of flooding in the Muskoka River Watershed.
  • Identification of potential approaches to short-term flood mitigation.

Reports, Presentations and Articles

 

7. Flood modifications review
Description:

This review will build on information gathered to identify options to support watershed-wide flood mitigation approaches, including:

  • Environmental, economic, social, and fiscal impacts.
  • Cost estimates for potential flood mitigation modifications.

Reports, Presentations and Articles

8. Review land use policy
Project Overview:

Review land-use policies by municipality, including a characterization of environment-first approach for watershed-scale management and recommendations for consistent land-use policies in the Muskoka River Watershed, including:

  • A catalogue of local Muskoka priorities, major consistencies and inconsistencies, and enforcement status across relevant municipal and provincial jurisdictions.
  • A characterization of best-in-class land-use policy for watershed-scale management based on scans of what other jurisdictions are doing.

Reports, Presentations and Articles:

9. Develop watershed health indicators 
Project Overview:

The watershed health indicators will build on existing information and studies available for the Muskoka River Watershed and provide the environmental and ecological metrics necessary to support the implementation of Integrated Watershed Management.

Reports, Presentations and Articles:

10. Develop water quality indicators 
Project Overview:

The water quality indicators will build on existing information and studies available for the Muskoka River Watershed and will reflect emerging threats to the aquatic ecosystems of the Watershed, including:

  • Impacts of climate change on air and water temperature, soil moisture, seasonality of precipitation, winter patterns, and ice behaviour.
  • A plan for monitoring the water quality indicators.

Reports, Presentations and Articles:

11. Erosion survey
Project Overview:

Identify locations throughout the Muskoka River Watershed where shoreline erosion has occurred as a result of fluctuating water levels. This survey includes:

  • A mapped inventory of locations where erosion has or could occur.
  • The development of strategies or techniques to remediate and limit shoreline damage.

Reports, Presentations and Articles:

12. Public access inventory 
Project Overview:

Identify public access points in the Muskoka River Watershed, including:

  • A mapped inventory of existing and potential public access points.
  • The development of local policy options that support environmental, social, and economic priorities.

Reports, Presentations and Articles:

Expanded projects – descriptions and findings

 

Project 1 - Hydrological model

Expanded scope of work to include:

  • Modelling various scenarios, including changes to climate, land use, or infrastructure.
  • Low flow analysis.
  • Additional reporting.

Reports and Factsheets:

Project 3 - Examine localized structural mitigation measures

Expanded scope of work to include:

  • Developing depth-damage curves for major lakes and rivers in the watershed.
  • Providing an estimate of the “damage” spawned by the Regulatory event before implementing any flood risk mitigation measures.

Reports and Factsheets:

Project 4 - Expand floodplain mapping

Expanded scope of work to include:

  • Collecting new LiDAR.
  • Modelling and floodplain mapping for new areas including Kawagama Lake.

Reports and Factsheets:

Project 5 - Natural capital inventory

Expanded scope of work to include:

  1. Strategies to reduce file size, data hosting opportunities and flow direction symbology for the hydrologic network.
  2. Refinement of land cover types by updating the training data with emphasis on agricultural lands, anthropogenic areas (e.g., golf courses) and rock barren/anthropogenic impervious areas.
  3. Development of a framework to pre-screen the status of wetland features using Ontario Wetland Evaluation System (OWES) criteria.
  4. A regional wildlife habitat connectivity analysis (using deer wintering habitat) to develop a habitat connectivity model and evaluate the importance of corridors to support ecological connections.

Reports and Factsheets:

Project 8 - Review land use policy

Expanded scope of work to include:

  • Developing an implementation study to understand how existing policy frameworks translate into zoning and other implementation procedures/processes currently employed within the Muskoka River Watershed.
  • Providing recommendations for short- and long-term opportunities to implement IWM policies, initiatives and programs and identify potential challenges and partnership requirements.

Reports and Factsheets:

Project 9 - Develop watershed health indicators

Expanded scope of work to include:

  • Consulting with local experts to narrow the longlist of recommended indicators to a manageable list.
  • Researching indicators to assess the effects of boating activity on the watershed.
  • Preparing a report on the implementation of shortlist indicators.

Reports and Factsheets:

Project 10 - Develop water quality indicators

Expanded scope of work to include the development of:

  • A watershed-based citizen-science bloom watch program to collect and archive detailed data on cyanobacteria and other nuisance algal blooms.
  • Guidelines to support lake associations and other coalitions participating in water monitoring.
  • A monitoring strategy for emerging contaminants, including pharmaceuticals and pesticides.
  • Guidance on implementation of recommendations made in the Water Quality Indicators Report.

Reports and Factsheets

Frequently Asked Questions

Watersheds and the Muskoka River Watershed

What is a watershed? 

  • A watershed is an area of land that drains to the same location or body of water.
  • It includes rivers, lakes, wetlands, and any land whether it park, farm, forest, school parking lot, small towns, big cities, and the soil we use to build our homes on etc.
  • Think of a watershed as a funnel, collecting all the water in a specific area and draining it into the nearest body of water.
  • Drop by drop water is channeled into the soil, groundwater, creeks, and streams making its way to larger rivers and lakes.
  • Watersheds are not defined by political, national, or international boundaries. The topography of the land shapes the boundary.
  • Everyone in the world lives in a watershed.
  • In Muskoka, the environment, economy, and society depend on a healthy watershed.

Where is the Muskoka River Watershed located? 

The headwaters of the river originate on the western slopes of Algonquin Park and flow southwesterly for approximately 210 kilometers to discharge into the southeast corner of Georgian Bay.

How big is the Muskoka River Watershed?

The watershed measures over 62 kilometers at its widest point and is approximately 120 kilometers long, encompassing an area of approximately 5,100 square kilometers. The watershed contains over 2,000 lakes and almost 7,000 km of shoreline.

What are the major rivers and subwatersheds in The District Municipality of Muskoka?

There are three main watersheds within The District Municipality of Muskoka.

  • The Black-Severn River Watershed flows through the Severn River to Georgian Bay in the southern portion of the District.
  • Muskoka River (North and South Branch) Watershed outlets into Georgian Bay through the Moon and Musquash Rivers.
  • In the western portion of the District, a narrow band of the Georgian Bay Watershed conveys flows to Georgian Bay through several smaller rivers in the Township of Georgian Bay. 

What municipalities are included within the Muskoka River Watershed?

A watershed is not defined by municipal or administrative boundaries. The Muskoka River Watershed includes four upper tier and 13 lower tier municipalities.

Upper Tier:

  • District of Muskoka
  • County of Haliburton
  • District of Parry Sound (unorganized)
  • Nipissing District (unorganized) 

Lower Tier:

  • Town of Gravenhurst*
  • Town of Bracebridge*
  • Town of Huntsville*
  • Township of Lake of Bays*
  • Township of Georgian Bay*
  • Township of Muskoka Lakes*
  • Township of Archipelago
  • Township of Algonquin Highlands
  • Town of Kearney
  • Township of Dysart et al.
  • Township of McMurrich/Monteith
  • Township of Perry
  • Township of Seguin

* Part of The District Municipality of Muskoka

Are there any Indigenous Nations within the Muskoka River Watershed?

Yes, eight Indigenous Nations have traditional ties or ongoing interest in the lands that now encompass Muskoka. Actively involved Nations within the Muskoka Area Indigenous Leadership Table (MAILT) include:

  • The Wahta Mohawks First Nation
  • Moose Deer Point First Nation
  • Moon River Metis Council (The Metis Nation of Ontario)
  • Chippewas of Rama First Nation
  • Huron-Wendat Nation

Learn more about Indigenous Nations within Muskoka and MAILT: www.engagemuskoka.ca/mailt

How are watersheds managed?

Watersheds are managed through watershed management plans. 

Does Muskoka River have a watershed management plan?

No, the Muskoka River does not have a watershed management plan. 

What is the Muskoka River Water Management Plan?

The Muskoka River Water Management Plan is a legally enforceable strategy outlining how the 42 dams in the watershed operate to manage the flow and water levels in the Muskoka River with a focus on maintaining water levels for navigation, fish and wildlife, and hydropower generation. The plan was created in 2006 and is managed by the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF).

The Muskoka River Water Management Plan is not a holistic watershed plan. It considers some aspects of the watershed (like lake level and fish habitat) but does not address all aspects of a watershed - including human health, ecological health (including land, forest, soil) and economic health.

How was the Muskoka River Water Management Plan created?

The plan was created from:

  1. The Hackner-Holden Agreement. 
  2. The Ministry of Natural Resource Dam Operations Manual.
  3. Existing operating plans tied to legal tenure at generating stations.
  4. Structural limitations.
  5. Water retention limitations.
  6. Additions to support a more natural flow, ecological conditions, trout spawning and recreational water-base activities.

What is the Hackner-Holden Agreement? 

  • Created in 1940, The Hackner-Holden Agreement was the original agreement that controlled lake levels and outflows to maximize benefits for summer use and water navigation. Power production was optimized at other times.
  • Amended in 1969 to recognize tourism, fish, and wildlife. 
  • Replaced in 2006 by the Muskoka River Water Management Plan.
 What is a Conservation Authority?
Conservation Authorities are local watershed management agencies, represented by Conservation Ontario, mandated to ensure the conservation, restoration and responsible management of Ontario’s water, land and natural habitats through programs that balance human, environmental and economic needs.
Does Muskoka have a Conservation Authority? 
No, Muskoka does not have a Conservation Authority.
What activities can I do to make a difference in my watershed?
  • Add native plants or a rain garden to your yard.
  • Report erosion when you see it. Go to: www.muskoka.on.ca/erode
  • Become a citizen scientist by volunteering to collect data to monitor water quality and environmental health.
  • Participate in a shoreline or environmental cleanup.
  • Create a riparian buffer using native plants on your shoreline.
  • Reduce or eliminate lawn chemicals.
  • Keep storm drains clear.
  • Do not use toxic household chemicals down the drain; take them to a hazardous waste centre.
  • Use natural products for cleaning.
  • Use hardy native plants that requires little or no water, fertilizers, or pesticides on your property.
  • Conserve or recycle water, take shorter showers, fix leaks, turn off the water when not in use, and conserve water with a rain barrel.
  • Use surfaces like wood, brick or gravel for walkways, and decks that allow rain to soak in and not run off.
  • Fix vehicle leaks or drive less walk or bike; many pollutants in our waters come from car exhaust and car leaks.
  • Support stream restoration projects.

Integrated Watershed Management (IWM)

What is IWM?
  • IWM is an approach to managing natural resources and human activities within an entire watershed, regardless of jurisdictional boundaries.
  • This approach brings a scientific perspective to environmental and land-use management by developing watershed-scale targets.
  • IWM seeks to balance social, environmental, and economic factors in the decision-making process.

What is the difference between IWM and the Muskoka River Water Management Plan?

IWM is a holistic approach to watershed management that considers human, ecological and economic health. It includes the water and land throughout the watershed and how these things are managed (i.e., development policy). The Muskoka River Water Management Plan is a small component of an IWM plan approach. The Muskoka River Water Management Plan guides dam operators on the operation of water control structures in the Muskoka River Watershed. It considers related aspects such as recreational lake levels, river flow fluctuations and base flows, and fish habitat, but is limited to the usage of dams for water management.

What are the benefits of an IWM approach? 

By taking an IWM approach, we can develop plans that support:

  • Improved water quality and quantity.
  • Flood and erosion management.
  • Biodiversity and resilient habitats.
  • Sustainable economic and recreational opportunities.
  • Improved quality of life and communities.
  • Greater ability for the watershed to adapt to the impacts of climate change, urbanization and other stressors.

What are the advantages of having an IWM plan?

IWM enables a host of interconnected issues to be addressed collectively with several benefits:

  • Science-based decision-making.
  • Improved collaboration.
  • Leveraging existing local environmental natural resource investments resulting in more sustainable outcomes.

How does IWM benefit the local environment?

Benefits include:

  • Improved water quality and erosion control.
  • More resilient biodiversity and habitat.
  • Greater ability to adapt to impacts of climate change.
  • Protect species and habitats at risk.
  • Protect wetlands.

How does IWM benefit the local economy?

Benefits include:

  • Energy production, hydropower.
  • Contributes to sustainable fisheries, mining, forestry, agriculture, transportation, tourism.
  • Improved neighbourhood desirability.
  • Sustainable development.

How does IWM benefit local society?

Benefits include:

  • Improved quality of life.
  • Monitoring of water quality - improved water quality.
  • Safe drinking water.
  • Monitoring for the health of the watershed.
  • Flood protection and erosion.
  • Natural areas to keep active and recharge.
  • Waste management.
  • Land use.

Where is IWM being implemented in Ontario?

There are 36 Conservation Authorities across Ontario that rely on an IWM approach – 31 in southern Ontario and five in northern Ontario.

Municipal partnerships or other organizations can also implement IWM. A few examples of this include:

  • North Bay, Mattawa River Integrated Watershed Strategy.
  • City of Greater Sudbury Sub-watershed Planning and Management & Official Plan.
  • Thunder Bay, McVicar Creek Watershed Protection and Rehabilitation Plan.
  • Ottawa, Mississippi River Watershed Plan.
  • Simcoe County, Nottawasaga River Integrated Watershed Plan.

What is the long-term goal for IWM in Muskoka?

The long-term goal is to adopt the principles for an IWM approach.

The principles are:

  1. Watershed-based (not political or administrative boundaries) and informed by science.
  2. Requires us to manage natural resources and human activities together.
  3. Considers the interests and needs of not just the environment but also the economy and society because they are all connected and impact each other in good and bad ways.
  4. Relies on an adaptive management approach, which establishes a plan, implements, monitors, reports, and re-evaluates and updates, if necessary.
  5. Need for collaborative governance at many levels for shared decision-making and priority setting.

How could IWM be implemented in Muskoka?

IWM could be put into action through a series of planning steps that include:

  • Getting to know the watershed.
  • Identify local issues.
  • Develop plans to address the issues.
  • Implement actions locally.
  • Monitor, report, and update plans.

Some of the tools used when implementing IWM include:

  1. Watershed plans, and watershed management programs and services.
  2. Strategies, policies, legislation, and regulations (e.g., climate change).
  3. Green economy initiative and incentives.

What is the governance structure of IWM?

While this is not currently within the scope of the current projects, collaborative governance at many levels for shared decision and priority setting is a core principle of IWM.

Integrated Watershed Management Projects (IWM projects)

How did the IWM projects come about?
Muskoka is particularly vulnerable to flooding, having experienced three 100-year floods in the last decade.  Extensive flooding has had widespread impacts on Muskoka’s community, economy, and environment. To address this, in 2019, the Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks (MECP) appointed the Muskoka Watershed Advisory Group (MWAG) to advise on priority geographic areas and key issues confronting in the Muskoka River Watershed.

Following consultations with the community and key stakeholders, MWAG provided recommendations for projects across three key themes:

  • Integrated Watershed Management.
  • Flood Mitigation.
  • Watershed Enhancement.

The MECP considered MWAG’s recommendations and identified several projects for Provincial support.

What is Muskoka Watershed Advisory Group?

The Province of Ontario established the Muskoka Watershed Advisory Group in August 2019 to protect and conserve the Muskoka River Watershed and support economic growth in the region.

The Advisory Group included nine members with experience environmental protection and conservation, resource management, urban and land use planning, municipal government, natural and applied sciences, and finance.

The Advisory Group has concluded its mandate and has been terminated.

How many projects are there and what are they?

There are twelve projects.

  1. Hydrological Model
  2. Operational Adjustment Study
  3. Examine Localized Structural Mitigation Measures
  4. Expand Floodplain Mapping
  5. Natural Capital Inventory
  6. Water Management Plan Scoping Study
  7. Examine Watershed-Scale Food Mitigation Options
  8. Review Land Use Policy
  9. Develop Watershed Health Indicators
  10. Develop Water Quality Indicators
  11. The Erosion Survey
  12. The Public Access Inventory

What is the goal of the IWM projects?

To lay the foundation to design a comprehensive approach to watershed management to address land-use decisions, environmental projects, infrastructure projects and broader public policy options. These projects aim to identify the existing conditions within the Muskoka River Watershed, characterize the watershed and lay the foundation for the future development of an IWM Plan.

How will these projects help to address flooding events in the Muskoka River Watershed?

The projects seek to understand the causes of flooding in Muskoka and what can be done in the future to mitigate flood events by:

  1. Collecting information about existing conditions.
  2. Reviewing existing policies and practices that are in place to manage the watershed.
  3. Gathering information and data to monitor the watershed.
  4. Exploring structural mitigation measures and operational adjustments that may have an impact on water levels during flooding scenarios.

Who is funding the projects and how much funding did the District receive?

The Province of Ontario announced an initial investment of $5 million to examine the existing conditions in the watershed, explore ways to reduce the impacts of flooding and address the health of the Muskoka River Watershed.

  • The District received $4,162,850.
  • The Town of Bracebridge received $90,000 to undertake a siltation study in the Muskoka River.

Who is leading the projects?

The District of Muskoka is leading the majority of the projects with support from the Muskoka Watershed Council and the Community Roundtable.

What is the Muskoka Watershed Council?

Founded in 2001 and incorporated as a non-profit organization in July 2019, the Muskoka Watershed Council is an initiative of The District Municipality of Muskoka and the Muskoka community as an advisory (not a regulatory or enforcement) agency.

The Council, comprised entirely of volunteers, makes evidence-based recommendations to municipal governments, decision-makers, managers, and the public on ways to protect and restore the resources of the area’s watersheds.

Learn more: www.muskokawatershed.org

What is the Community Roundtable?

The Community Roundtable (CRT) was established by the Muskoka Watershed Council (MWC) in 2021. Its mission is to promote and support the initiation of IWM in the Muskoka River Watershed by 1) providing the District with input and advice on its initial suite of projects; and 2) engaging and educating the watershed community and contributing local input, knowledge, experience and guidance in the development of an integrated watershed management strategy for the Muskoka River Watershed.

The establishment of the Community Roundtable was one of the recommendations from the Muskoka Watershed Advisory Group.

Who is involved with the Community Roundtable?

The Community Roundtable includes:

  • Muskoka Watershed Council members.
  • Representatives from municipalities with lands within the Muskoka River Watershed.
  • Members from a variety of interested individuals, local industries, organizations, and communities across the watershed.

Are Indigenous Nations involved, engaged or consulted with on the projects?

  • Indigenous Nations were invited to participate in the Community Roundtable.
  • Both Moose Deer Point First Nation and Wahta Mohawks First Nation gave permission to complete floodplain mapping in their communities and on their lands, and access has been granted as needed for field surveys.

Where can I find the final reports for each of the projects?

Links to the final report for each of the 12 projects are linked above (see "Project Overview and Findings").

Will more funding for additional IWM work be forthcoming?

There is currently no additional or guaranteed funding in place.

How can I get involved?

You can participate in the Community Roundtable:

  • Community Roundtable meetings are open to the public.
  • Contact: crt@muskokawatershed.org

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