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An ambitious initiative is in the works to get several projects off the ground by 2022 that will attempt to mitigate spring flooding in the Muskoka watershed while also focusing on an integrated approach to managing the same.
With flooding events increasing in frequency, in 2018 the Province announced the Muskoka Watershed Conservation and Management Initiative to “better identify risks and issues facing the Muskoka Region, allowing the community and Province to work together to protect this vital area.”
The Province also announced up to $5 million in funding as well as matching funds of up to an additional $5 million from other levels of government, private citizens, and businesses, and established the Muskoka Watershed Advisory Group (MWAG) on the heels of devastating flooding in 2019.
The advisory group, made up of nine volunteer members from a cross-section of expertise, was to provide a strategic assessment to the Ontario Minister of the Environment, Conservation and Parks about issues facing the watershed and the type of projects that could be undertaken to protect it. Its findings were published on June 29, 2020. (You can find the report here.)
MWAG made 19 recommendations for projects that could be undertaken in order to integrate watershed management, enhance watershed health, and mitigate spring flooding, with the latter described as the most pressing issue.
“The Muskoka River Water Management Plan (MRWMP) is a product of management approaches used in an earlier, more dependable, time. It is too narrowly focused on flow, and it assumes the environment is static. It was never intended as a flood-control plan, and its capacity to mitigate flooding has always been very limited (we estimate that under optimal conditions the various storage bodies behind dams and reservoirs could have retained only slightly over half the flow occurring between 15 April and 10 May 2019),” it states.
Mardi Witzel, chair of the advisory group, as well as Chris Cragg, a director of the Muskoka Lakes Association and one of the members of the advisory group who worked for many years as an engineer with Ontario Power Generation, spoke to District council at its March 15 meeting.
They spoke to the immediate projects that could be undertaken in order to address flood mitigation, but also noted the importance of other recommended projects and the need to sequence them, as well as the importance of an Integrated Watershed Management (IWM) approach.
Cragg said the easiest and most immediate project is to analyze the existing Muskoka River Watershed Management Plan and work within its parameters to try and improve draw-downs associated with the 42 water control structures in the Muskoka watershed as weather conditions change, although he also noted the difficulty with doing that and with predicting flow patterns as well as the limited impact it would have.
Another recommendation is to look at structural changes that could be made in order to create natural or man-made reservoirs, particularly associated with flood-prone areas in the watershed, and the removal or mitigation of impediments to the flow of water through the watershed.
The recommendations also call on the establishment of a ‘Roundable’ bringing stakeholders together to find ways to enhance a more Integrated Water Management (IWM) plan, which would be led by the Muskoka Watershed Council. The volunteer, not-for-profit organization was established by the District of Muskoka in 2001 to advocate for watershed health and has been studying the watershed.
“We see the new, more dynamic world of the 21st century—a world of rapid environmental change as well as rapid changes in demography, economic activity, and lifestyles—as incompatible with the relatively static form of IWM that has been practiced until now. Muskoka Watershed Council is interested in facilitating the formation of the Roundtable, and development of the operating policies needed for an effective IWM,” states the MWAG report.
District Municipality of Muskoka Commissioner of Community and Planning Services Samantha Hastings told District council at its March 15 meeting that following meetings with various stakeholders and provincial ministries the District has been chosen as a lead on a number of the recommended projects—particularly those that have been prioritized and require a completion date of spring 2022, subject to funding.
Hastings also said among the projects being given immediate priority is the creation of hydrological modelling which would be used to understand “how flood flows originate and how they are distributed across the watershed, what cost-benefits are associated with watershed management actions, and the influences of various undertakings on flood potential.”
Other initiatives include the expansion of floodplain mapping. All parties that spoke on the issue made it clear that the projects would be sequenced and build on one another as information regarding the impacts of some of the recommended initiatives is analyzed. It was also noted that Muskoka’s experience could be used by the Province to inform Integrated Water Management initiatives in other watersheds.
Hastings told council that in order to achieve the ambitious project timelines, her department would require additional staffing made up of two temporary project managers and a communications/administrative position, again pending funding.
Following a closed session meeting, council emerged instructing staff to enter into a funding agreement with the Province.
You can find Hastings’ full report here (PDF).
Related: Can the MNRF control major flooding?
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