Water Level Woes
Why did many lakes in Muskoka experienced extremely low water levels this summer? The short answer is that the low water level was due to a combination of low snowfall over the winter of 2012, lack of rain and high temperatures with lots of sun this summer (creating a net loss through evaporation), and the need to manage water levels up and down the Muskoka River system.
Between the variables we can control and those we can’t, Mother Nature seems to have had the upper hand this year.
For example, Lake of Bays is controlled by a dam at its outlet in Baysville which empties into the south branch of the Muskoka River. The management of the dam by the Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) is governed by the Muskoka River Water Management Plan, which requires a minimum flow of 3 cubic metres/second, so closing the dam completely (i.e. no discharge) is not an option.
The MNR reports that logs were placed at the dam to maintain the minimum level of outflow as early as the beginning of July. By August, Lake of Bays was 18 cm below its operating target and many lakes in the area were down 25 cm. The lakes that feed into Lake of Bays (Smoke and Tea Lakes in Algonquin Park and Kawagama Lake in Algonquin Highlands) were low even in early spring, resulting in less water going into Lake of Bays than usual.
You may have wondered why water levels on Lake Muskoka were close to normal this year compared to the low level higher in the watershed. Many people questioned if too much water was sent downstream too early.
According to the MNR, Lake Muskoka is supplied with water from a much larger catchment area than Lake of Bays (4,683 km2 for Lake Muskoka compared to 1,481 km2 for Lake of Bays), so there is more water flowing into Lake Muskoka.
In addition, Lake Muskoka experienced more rainfall than Lake of Bays last summer according to the MNR’s weather stations, one of which is in Lake of Bays. Lake Muskoka water levels came up nicely in August after a significant rain event which appeared to miss the Lake of Bays area.
Usually, a fall drawdown of water on Lake of Bays commences after the first week of September to lower water levels for lake trout spawning. This year, however, water levels reached the fall drawdown target by late summer. The MNR reports that no intentional drawdown will be initiated in Lake of Bays and other lakes for the 2012 season unless there is significant rain this fall.
Is this just a one year phenomena or can we expect more years of low water levels? With our changing climate we don’t know. Each year water managers will have to second guess what Mother Nature is going to give us and act accordingly.
Nature’s Snarl-Up is the Best Shoreline for Muskoka
By Scott Young
There’s a tiny beach at our family cottage that has been there longer than I. It’s got space for a couple of chairs and a modest sand castle. It was carved out of the cedar thicket that still surrounds it. A load of beach sand was dumped on shore, and some driftwood and stones were carefully cleared to make a wading area. The opening in the trees might be 5 meters, if that. It’s a pretty, ideal spot, especially for children. I can’t imagine the cottage without it. And yet, even with such subtle alterations, there has been erosion and maintenance.
The good news is there’s lots of resources available to help us get it right, and to fix the mistakes we’ve already made. And when we get it right, we are saving money, time and material, and spending more time splashing with the kids. We’re also protecting our water quality.
Muskoka’s natural shoreline is largely made of a resilient snarl-up of rocks, stumps, downed trees and branches, and a network of living roots laid down over a century by native shrubs and trees. Together, these elements form a strong matrix, the ultimate maintenance-free breakwall that protects your waterfront investment. While it is best left alone, it is also natural that we want to see and use the lake.
When we remove natural vegetation from the shoreline, we usually mean to improve our access to the lake. But, there does seem to be that tendency to go overboard. Where once we may have cleared an area by hand, now we’ve got an excavator and a loader on the job. Many just want a swimming area, others want to eradicate anything that might touch their toes while swimming. Some may want a clearing for family gatherings and games, others may have a misplaced suburban ideal that a yard should be all grass.
But once that amazing natural shoreline snarl-up is gone, once the trees and shrubs are replaced with tickety-boo, the soil that their roots held in place begins to erode, resulting in costly fixes. Hardening the shore with patio stones, breakwalls and retaining walls is expensive, and they are constantly undermined and in need of maintenance. But not only that, the health of your lake depends on the natural shoreline.
Ninety percent of all lake life is born, raised and fed in the area where the land and water meet, according to the Ministry of Natural Resources. It is a rich and complex habitat that supports plants, micro-organisms, insects, amphibians, birds, mammals and fish. Healthy shorelines are a big reason why Muskoka is known for its excellent water quality, and there’s a direct correlation between water quality and your property value.
Nature’s snarled-up shoreline is the easier way, the smarter way, and the Muskoka way. There’s an excellent brochure called Restore Your Shore, that includes step by step instructions on how to restore your hardened shoreline. It’s part of the Steward’s Guide Series published by the Muskoka Watershed Council. Of course, it’s better to read up before you run into erosion issues, and a good place to start is the brochure Protecting Your Waterfront Investment, also published by the Muskoka Watershed Council. Another excellent place to start is the Ministry of Natural Resources’ Preserving and Restoring Natural Shorelines. These and more are all available at www.muskokawatershed.org/mwc.
Over the years, the little beach at our cottage has matured. There are now shrubs growing between the sandy area and the water, with a small path for access. Any toe-stubbing hazards in the wading area are added to the shoreline snarl-up. But mostly, we’re keeping it small. After all, we don’t want to lose it.