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Grading the health of our waterways with local experts

Grading the health of our waterways with local experts

in Environment by

Why are the City of Kawartha Lakes waterways important? The City’s “Integrated Community Sustainability Plan” asks and answers the question. Our municipality is “renowned for its 250 lakes” and is known for its “headwater streams and river systems originating on the Oak Ridges Moraine and the Canadian Shield.” Furthermore, “the Trent-Severn waterway is central to the Kawartha Lakes . . . linking the vibrant communities that rely on these unique water resources for tourism and commerce, recreation [and] drinking water.”

“Naturally beautiful,” are the first words of the City’s Vision Statement for its Strategic Plan, which sets as one of its three major strategic goals “a healthy environment.” So, clearly, the current and future health of our lakes and the waters that feed them matter.

Jamie Morris.

Big topic, but fortunately some authoritative local sources of information can help us understand the big picture. One is literally an Authority — Kawartha Conservation Authority. Its mandate is “to help ensure the conservation, restoration and responsible management of water, land and natural habitats” and its area takes in almost 2,000 sq. km of the City of Kawartha Lakes.

Another is Fleming College’s School of Environmental & Natural Resource Sciences (at the Frost Campus), one of Canada’s leading environmental education institutions.

For this article the Advocate sat down with three experts: aquatic biologist Brett Tregunno and Director of Integrated Watershed Emma Collyer from Kawartha Conservation, and Barb Elliot, a professor in Fleming’s Ecosystem Management Program.

We had five questions for them.

  1. If you were to assign a report card grade for the current state of our waterways what would it be?

Kawartha Conservation already gives a general overview of the state of the forests, wetlands and water resources in a “Watershed Report Card,” published every five years, most recently in 2018.

For Collyer the two report card measures most directly related to lake health are surface water quality and forest conditions. Levels of phosphorus are measured at sampling stations located at outlets of major tributaries or lakes; types and numbers of small aquatic animals are also checked (some are more tolerant of pollution than others). Forest cover is mapped out by aerial photography. Tregunno explains that the more natural landscape the better: “Forests filter, reduce run-off, shade and cool, and provide nutrient material (the base of the food chain).”

The Kawartha Conservation grades for surface water quality of Kawartha Lakes ranging from B to D and for forest conditions from A to D. For both water quality and forest conditions, it’s mostly Cs.

That’s the grade Elliot would assign as well. “Having travelled the length of the Trent-Severn waterway,” she tells us, “I’ve seen evidence of the influence of human activity. I’ve seen shoreline alterations, high nutrient inputs, excessive sedimentation and siltation, excessive plant growth, and removal of natural habitats.”

All three experts say conditions vary. Lakes such as Balsam and Cameron, fed by flow off the Canadian Shield, are solid “Bs”; Lake Scugog, (which is almost self-contained and bordered by farmland) and Pigeon Lake are Cs. Sturgeon, fed from various sources, “is almost like three different lakes,” says Tregunno. “It’s excellent in the northwest (near Fenelon), relatively poor coming out of the Scugog River.”

The closest to pristine might be the Pigeon River Headwaters Conservation Area, managed by Kawartha Conservation. It’s accessed by a rock-strewn, unassumed road but those who make the effort to visit will find cold water seeps and springs, a wetland, and a river cold and clean enough to support brook trout.

  1.  What are the greatest environmental threats?

The threats to our waterways identified by Elliot could be summed up in one word: humans. “The biggee is shoreline and habitat disruption,” she says. The shoreline (aka “riparian zone”) is vitally important. (A Federation of Ontario Cottagers’ Associations guide calls it a “ribbon of life . . . where 90% of all lake and river life is born, raised and fed.”)

Those who put in lawns to the shoreline, fertilize them, put in concrete shore walls, or take other damaging actions, don’t do it with the intention of harming the environment. “Ecology and ecosystem dynamics are often abstract concepts, and it is not easy for people to make the connections between actions and impacts,” says Elliot. “If you pour something down a drain, fish don’t immediately go belly-up. Effects are cumulative and it takes time for complexity to express itself.”

Collyer begins by noting “no two lakes are experiencing all of the same challenges,” but goes on to list the habitat loss and fragmentation Elliot spoke of: climate change, invasive species, contaminated storm-water runoff, aquatic plant proliferation, “shoreline hardening” (concrete, Armour Stone, steel sheet piling, etc. ), and extreme water levels.”

Climate change should be top of mind. In late March, the City of Kawartha Lakes adopted a Healthy Environment Plan. The overall vision states, “We will be leaders in addressing our changing climate to ensure a healthy environment and a prosperous community.”

Just a week later, Environment and Climate Change Canada released a report that generated headlines around the world: the key finding was that Canada is warming at twice the rate of the rest of the world.

What we should expect are overall warmer temperatures, temperature extremes (both hot and cold), more frequent and intense rainfall and consequently more flooding, and longer growing seasons. All have implications for the watershed system.

  1. What would be the consequences of not addressing the threats?  

In her answer Collyer focuses on what could change: a reliable source of drinking water; swimming, boating and other recreational opportunities; local food, and cultural heritage. Our quality of life could suffer.

She also points to the economic impact: “Tourists and seasonal residents typically come from the GTA wanting to experience a natural setting and expect clean and healthy waters with abundant wildlife. If our lakes change from this current character, there is a risk they will look elsewhere.”

As an ecosystem management professor, Elliot’s dystopian fear is of ecosystem disruption and collapse. She warns of the “precariousness of the food web.”

If the threats aren’t addressed there would be increases in harmful algal blooms (blue green algae is a particular concern). She’s already seen “dead zones” in lakes in Haliburton and the Kawarthas with increased nutrient loading, loss of oxygen, and loss of fish; these dead zones would expand.

She would expect loss of some species, and changes in plant and animal communities. Hello spiny water-fleas and Chinese Mystery Snails; goodbye brook trout.

  1. What is being done?

The tone changes when we ask this question. This is their wheelhouse. All three are dedicated to looking for solutions and taking action to protect our waters.

It’s the Fleming professor who talks of the role played by Kawartha Conservation. The “Report Cards” are, she feels, a smart way to translate a welter of complex data into a form the general public can understand. The Lake Management Plans, she says, are “brilliant — a great opportunity to engage people in planning for the future of the lakes.”

As part of its five-year action plan, Kawartha Conservation is undertaking projects that specifically address threats to our waterways. For example, one project focuses on reducing E. coli at public beaches to make them safer for swimming, while another looks to improve techniques for preventing exposed soils at construction sites from washing into waters.

The Authority enlists the public in some of its data collection through “Citizen Science” programs. A nearshore water quality monitoring project started in 2017 with 12 volunteers on Lake Scugog and another 25 citizen scientists on Sturgeon; this year it’s being expanded to Pigeon, Cameron, and Balsam lakes.

Staff at the Ken Reid Administration Centre can advise residents and there are print resources (the “Landowner Guide to Protecting Water Quality in the Kawarthas” would be of use to any resident).

The college plays important roles. Fleming students assist with Kawartha Conservation projects and carry out research of their own. Graduates from Ecosystem Management, Fish & Wildlife, and other programs have the knowledge and skills to contribute to maintaining healthy waterways.

There are other organizations that have a stake in the health of the waterways and that take action. Cottagers associations are one. FOCA (Federation of Ontario Cottagers’ Associations) produces useful print resources (particularly its “Shoreline Owner’s Guide to Healthy Waterfronts.”) The Blue Canoe program in the Kawartha Lakes, Lake Partner Program, and Love Your Lake in Haliburton, are all doing good work. Kawartha Field Naturalists foster an appreciation of the flora and fauna.

Add in various levels of government and altogether there are so so many organizations looking to play a role that coordination of efforts becomes a challenge.

  1. What more should be done for our waterways?

Government action at every level is needed. The federal and provincial governments must step in, particularly in dealing with climate change, which is not confined to one watershed boundary.

What our municipal government can do is to make sure it backs up the bold words in its “Healthy Environment Plan” with equally bold actions. That’s exactly what they’ve done in 2019, according to Collyer: “The municipal government committed to funding a number of actions across our lakes to be led by Kawartha Conservation, including the Lake Management Plans and Implementation Plans.”

We’re all stakeholders. Collyer says, “Locally there are many things we can do as organizations, communities and individuals in maintaining the health of our waterways through how we choose to live, work and recreate.”

Maybe the key is something Elliot ends our conversation with: “We need to begin from a sense of wonder for the natural world and build from there.” If everyone understood  that everything is interconnected and precious — that for example a dead log in the water is not just a dead log — that it provides cooling shade and shelter for fish, home for insects, a basking site for turtles, and nutrients as it breaks down — we’d take the fragility seriously, and play our parts in protecting our waterways.

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Jamie is a retired teacher and Chair of the Kawartha Lakes Library Board. For The Lindsay Advocate he is reviving the 'Friends & Neighbours' column he wrote for the Lindsay Post, as well as writing a column on the library’s contributions to the community.

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