New Muskoka watershed report says region is at ‘a crucial turning point’

Aerial drone photo of Muskoka lake daytime, muskoka watershed Photo by chrisdonaldsonphotography/Shutterstock

The Muskoka Watershed Council has released a new report card on the area’s waterways, detailing how factors such as more frequent storms, rising salt levels, and a threatened habitat for aquatic life are growing concerns. “While currently healthy, Muskoka’s watersheds are gradually degrading in several ways,” the report states, “and our existing management systems seem incapable of halting or reversing this negative trend.” 

The report included 14 key takeaways, including that calcium is declining in lakes, while toxic algae blooms are becoming more common, which can impact aquatic life and overall water quality. Lake trout, an iconic species in Canadian cottage country, may be particularly at risk; the authors noted that climate change is worsening their chances at long-term survival. “Present levels of fishing may have been sustainable when current fishing regulations were put in place in 2005,” they wrote. “But environmental changes since then have already impacted this species.”

Currently, about 70 per cent of the watershed’s more than 2,000 lakes have higher than normal chloride (salt) levels, as salt used to de-ice roads in the winter continues to run into water systems. The authors acknowledged the impact of climate change, namely hotter temperatures, fewer days of ice coverage in winter, and a more rapid melt in the spring, as influencing watershed health.

Council chair and marine ecologist Peter Sale said compared to other environments, these changes are happening more slowly—and that’s actually a negative. “People look at the environment in Muskoka and they see it as being pretty good…but it’s getting worse year by year,” he said. “That’s probably the most difficult kind of environmental change for people to get their heads around, and to recognize there is a need to do something.”

Sale said one of the first steps to better protecting the watershed, which is spread across 7,000 kilometres, is creating what he calls an “integrated” management system, that brings together the 13 municipalities currently responsible for its various areas. “They’re all working in silos,” Sale said. “So the issue is the work that is being required of people is not the right work.” Integration would not only help track changes in the watersheds, but it could mean establishing benchmarks for things such as chloride and nutrient levels, as well as fish populations.

As one of the most iconic wilderness areas in the country, Sale said improved management of Muskoka’s watersheds can serve as an example not just to Canada, but the rest of the world. “I think it’s well understood here that the environment is our economy,” he said. Without clean lakes to swim in, ice to skate on, or fish to populate the lakes, Muskoka won’t have as much to offer its inhabitants and prospective visitors. “Most people will say, ‘We want to be able to sit out on a summer evening and hear a loon calling’, or, ‘We want the water to be clean and safe to drink,’” Sale said. “We have done very well in Muskoka in keeping the environmental quality remarkably good, despite a dramatic increase in the human footprint. But we’re reaching a point where that’s going to become problematic.” 

The Muskoka Watershed Council offers a list of ways you can help, including being diligent about cleaning your boat, removing invasive plant species, using phosphate-free cleaners, and minimizing your personal use of road salt. They also mention supporting local environmental groups, such as the Ash Muskoka program, that helps restore vital calcium to lakes. 

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