More than just water.
It is life and livelihood in Muskoka
Welcome to Our Quest
There is much work to be done. Work that requires effort, dedication, skill, and knowledge. Work that requires monetary investment. Work that ultimately will help to ensure that the Muskoka we have, continues to be the Muskoka we love.
We can’t do this work alone, nor do we wish to. This is our Muskoka, collectively. All who live, work, play, and visit here. It is a place worth preserving and protecting for everyone, by everyone, today and for the future.
Before we ask you to join us, and to work along with us, we’d like to tell you about who we are, what guides and motivates us, what we believe, what we understand to be true, and how we will work for the vibrant health, protection and preservation of our natural environment in Muskoka.
And, yes, we are asking you to join us, or re-join us once more, not only because we want your help. We also need your help.
What is a watershed?
No matter where you are or where you live, work, or play, be it town, village, city, rural side road, provincial highway, waterfront log home, multi-story condo, you are in a watershed. A river’s watershed is all the region that it drains. Similarly, a lake’s watershed is all the area, including lands and upstream lakes, towns and farms that feed it with water. So a watershed is not just a lake and its shoreline, rather it is a tiled geographic quilt of forests, wetlands, rivers, lakes, farms and towns, all sharing a common flow of water. Thus all plants, animals and people are linked in a watershed, as they all share the same common crucial resource of flowing water.
The 4,660 sq km Muskoka watershed, which begins in the western Algonquin highlands, encompasses all the ground and surface water, the ponds, streams, rivers, and lakes, which eventually drain through Lake Muskoka then into Georgian Bay. It includes all that touches, and is touched by, all of that ceaselessly moving water. It is all inter-connected. Our watershed is the environmental stage or habitat on which our environmental stories play out. If the watershed is healthy, so too will be the ecosystems the watershed supports.
We, in Muskoka, are blessed with a magnificent watershed. Our unique mix of habitats creates the iconic region which we call Muskoka, a place of soul-stirring, spiritually-uplifting beauty, which both enriches our lives, and underpins our economy. However, Muskoka it is not without its environmental challenges. These environmental challenges have the potential to change forever the Muskoka we know and love, and the Muskoka which we depend on for our livelihoods.
We refuse to allow this to happen.
Thus our philosophy is a simple one. We believe that sound, scientific research which frames and guides definitive, focused action and policy is the best and only effective way to meet these environmental challenges head on, to ensure that the Muskoka we have is the Muskoka we need and love. In other words, we believe in confronting our environmental challenges, identifying their causes, taking restorative action, measuring progress, and evaluating success.
We believe that science is a powerful ally, but it is not just the purview of professionals. We believe that the citizens of our communities have a vital role to play, from research and investigation through to policy, implementation and practice. Not only does this allow us to accomplish more, it fosters within our communities a sense of pride, generating the will for ongoing action. Thus, we welcome and encourage citizen involvement.
We believe in embracing culture and the arts as excellent partners to raise awareness. In return, we will work diligently to ensure our Muskoka remains an inspiration for creativity, exploration and fulfilment for all communities.
We believe that the acquisition of knowledge is only beneficial when that knowledge is shared and utilized. Thus we seek to understand what is causing the degradation of watershed health, to share that knowledge with the public in confidence that this will broaden our understanding, and to foster the will for action to protect the watershed.
We understand that the natural world, a healthy and vibrant natural world, is crucial to our wellbeing, providing the irreplaceable needs of clean soil, air, food and water. Thus, we believe in maintaining diverse habitats, a predictable climate, a species-rich native biota, little if any pollution, and sustainable harvesting.
Finally, we believe that facing Muskoka’s environmental challenges is an ongoing need, and one that requires research. Environmental problems we understand will come, and given wise intervention, will also go. If we detect such problems early, they will go more quickly. If we improve our ability to detect emerging problems, we will solve them more efficiently.
Muskoka is a special place. Its 1600 lakes dot the landscape from the island-sprinkled shoreline of Georgian Bay to the pristine highland wilderness of Algonquin Park. It’s the closest lake district to Canada’s population heartland in the Greater Toronto Area. It is one of the most valued tourist destinations in the world. It’s Santa’s summer home; the port of the oldest coal-fired passenger ship in North America; home to both the “dippy” and loon, heritage railways and national sites, moose, small towns, and great arts. It is the natural environment, however, which sets Muskoka apart. The watersheds of Muskoka are the key to our lives and livelihoods. It is Muskoka’s healthy lakes, rivers, wetlands and forests that delight visitors and residents alike. It is this same natural environment that is linked to half of Muskoka’s employment.
Muskoka is also a vulnerable place. It is situated downwind of the main atmospheric emissions of the sulphur and nitrogen that acidified the rain in North America, and its forest soils are thin and built from granite. Hence, Muskoka forests and lakes were damaged by acid rain in the past. Muskoka’s lakes and rivers are sensitive to excessive inputs of nutrients from local towns and shoreline homes. Consequently, algal blooms were common in the recent past. The brown organic matter in its lake waters carry mercury, which is concentrated in each step up the long offshore food chains producing some of the highest mercury contamination in sport fish in the country. New threats are continuing to emerge. The influx of summer tourists and seasonal residents bring revenue but also non-native species, such as the spiny water flea, and “phrag”. Calcium decline, road salt, and climate change are new regional threats which worry local citizens. The wise management of all of these problems is beyond the capacity of district or municipal governments, while recent reductions in staffing and resources of provincial and federal lake and fisheries managers reduces their ability to research, then solve all of these problems.
In response, the citizens of Muskoka have stepped forward together with the District Municipality government to form the Muskoka Watershed Council (MWC), with its supporting, incorporated non-government organization, the Friends of the Muskoka Watershed (FMW). The intent of these two organizations is to encourage or conduct the requisite research and orchestrate the work needed to protect and foster the wise management of the lakes, rivers, wetlands and surrounding forests in the watersheds of Muskoka. We do this for the benefit of all Muskoka residents, be they permanent or seasonal, and for the many plant and animal communities with whom we share the watershed, and which are so important to maintaining the good condition of the landscape.
Our Road Ahead
What is the work that must be done to ensure the wise management of Muskoka watersheds? Past experience proves that environmental problems can be solved if we first generate the necessary environmental knowledge, then marshal the will for environmental action. This means we must document the trends in environmental condition (you can’t manage what you don’t measure), determine the causes of the environmental deterioration, then share this knowledge with the public. If the watersheds we value are indeed under threat, a motivated public’s determination for change will generate the resources needed to take action.
Specifically, the work needed for wise management of our Muskoka watersheds includes:
Assessment — ongoing research and monitoring of Muskoka watersheds to select appropriate environmental indicators that reflect what we value, detect changes in or from baseline conditions and any emerging threats,
Outreach — ongoing two-way communication with Muskoka residents and policy makers to solicit input on what residents value about our watersheds, to seek knowledge on what trends in environmental condition they perceive and share with them the knowledge of what trends environmental scientists have seen, to solicit feedback on whether or not they are content with current conditions, and, finally, to solicit advice on and support for preferred solutions,
Evaluation — ongoing tracking of the status and trends of all environmental threats that are of concern to the public and of remedial actions taken to fix the problems,
Diagnosis — research to understand the causes of environmental deterioration or threats of deterioration, where the cause-effect linkages are not yet understood
Action — ongoing action to prevent future problems from becoming serious, to remediate problems that are deemed serious, and to conduct follow-up monitoring to determine the success of restorative interventions.
In summary, the work of environmental management in Muskoka must include broad-scale determination of what environmental features we value, assessment of the status and trends of our watersheds in comparison to their valued status, diagnosis of the causes of environmental problems or threats, design and implementation of restorative policies or interventions, and follow-up re-assessments to determine if the environment has recovered.
Doing this work has never been easy. It crosses regulatory and governmental mandates. It requires ongoing public and environmental engagement for years to decades, periods that are much longer than typical corporate reporting periods or government policy and election cycles. It requires public and professional collaboration. It requires diverse buy-in and inputs from the public, and the input of many different professional players, including teachers, pollsters, engineers, planners, statisticians and researchers. It bridges the mandates of many environmental and non-environmental NGOs. It requires financial and other resource support. Finally, it requires restorative interventions, and change can be a difficult sell. Clearly, this work can be difficult, but the difficulties are not insurmountable. We have solved environmental problems at local, national and international scales in the past, and we can do so again. The MWC and the FMW use the following strategies to foster the work needed to protect and wisely manage the watersheds of Muskoka:
- We seek to enlarge the individual and corporate membership base in the FMW to increase our resources, knowledge and influence base, and ensure our members understand how our work will enhance the value they derive from the watersheds of Muskoka.
- We form partnerships and working relationships with other like-minded organizations and agencies to foster the needed work. These include other environmental NGOs (e.g., the Muskoka Conservancy, and the Muskoka Lake Association), other like-minded non-environmental NGO’s (e.g., the Lakelands Association of Realtors and the Muskoka Boat and Heritage Centre), and government agencies such as the District Municipality of Muskoka and MOECC’s Dorset Environmental Science Centre. We also advocate for and are seeking a means to build a Muskoka Environmental Research Complex, as an organizing entity for the partners’ needed work.
- We mobilize the knowledge acquired to where it can achieve the greatest benefits. We communicate broadly with our members, the public, academics, policy makers and the media using both traditional and newer electronic means to increase awareness of threats to and the condition of Muskoka watersheds. Such communication includes, but is not limited to, newsletters, regular Muskoka environmental report cards, position papers on particular environmental issues or threats, lectures to the public, support for the Muskoka Summit of the Environment, preparation of fact sheets, documents summarizing best management practices for individual threats, and integrative handbooks targeting specific user groups.
- We raise the funds needed to increase the research conducted to document environmental condition in Muskoka, and to diagnose the causes of local environmental deterioration,
- Finally, we advocate for policy changes to protect the Muskoka environment and foster actual interventions to remove documented environmental threats where we can.
Helping to Save the World
It is important to realize that we may be so uniquely positioned in Muskoka that our knowledge has immense potential to help the world’s population of lakes. Muskoka is situated directly downwind of the largest, regional air pollution sources in North America, hence our past damage from acid rain and current exposure to other long-range atmospheric pollutants. We also share the development pressures that are among the most common sources of environmental threats in the world. Further Canada has 40% of the world’s lakes, and 60% of the world’s freshwater volume that is contained in lakes. Thus Muskoka residents are not just stakeholders in Muskoka, but what we learn here may be directly applicable to a globally significant resource — the freshwaters in the world’s lakes. Hence, the FMW and MWC adopts two final strategies to increase the contributions that Muskoka knowledge may make in the world, i.e.,
- we raise funds to support the creation of an academic research chair to increase understanding of the threats to Muskoka watersheds, and more broadly, threats to Canadian Shield lakes, and boreal ecosystems, and
- we seek funding to embrace opportunities to use the knowledge, resources, and volunteer-base in Muskoka to improve understanding of threats to, and risk management of the lakes and watersheds around the world.
As we said at the beginning, we’d love to have you beside us in our quest. We also need you to help. And as we promised, we’ve laid out for you the philosophy that guides us, and the roadmap we are following.
Will you join us?
Yes, the challenges before us are sizeable. But who could possibly not be inspired and motivated by the potential benefits, the results of dedicated effort and a heartfelt love of Muskoka and all that Muskoka has to offer?
Learn more at friends.muskokawatershed.org