Monthly Archives: November 2019

When it comes to road salt, a little can go a long way!

Man shovelling snow


The overuse of road salt is damaging to our infrastructure, automobiles, vegetation, water quality and the environment, which is why it was added to the Canadian Environmental Protection Act’s Priority Substances List in 1995. Since this time, municipalities have been investigating ways to maintain public safety while reducing the amount of road salt used.


But it’s not just municipalities that need to curb their salt use. Smart About Salt, a non-profit organization developed in partnership with the Region of Waterloo, estimates that snow removal contractors and the general public use 10-40 times more salt than needed, every gram of which enters our lakes and rivers, harming wildlife and impacting our drinking water.


The District of Muskoka has taken a lead in efforts to reduce the amount of road salt used in Muskoka with the establishment of the Muskoka Road Salt Working Group, composed of representatives from the District of Muskoka and Area Municipalities, Fowlers Construction, the Ontario Ministry of Transportation, the Ontario Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks, the Muskoka Watershed Council, Friend of the Muskoka Watershed, and Landscape Ontario. The goal of this group is to investigate ways of reducing both the private and public use of road salt in Muskoka while maintaining public safety.


Sharing the resources developed by Smart About Salt (SAS) is one component of the Working Group’s efforts. Contractors can become SAS certified through a training program that educates on best practises to reduce salt use while maintaining service quality. Benefits from certification include reduced costs due to reduced salt application, strengthened due-diligence liability defence against lawsuits, protecting the environment, and reduced road salt infrastructure damage on client’s property.


Earlier this year, the District held a SAS certification training session for district and area municipal employees, followed more recently by a public awareness event organized with the Muskoka Watershed Council titled “Road Salt and You”, where participants learned a number of tips and tricks that they can use to reduce their winter salt use, whether it’s at home on walkways and driveways, or in the community on sidewalks and in parking lots.


So what are some of the best ways to reduce your salt use while maintaining safety?


Keeping your driveway and sidewalk clear of ice and snow:

  • Shovel first to remove as much snow and ice before applying salt.
  • A little salt goes a long way. You only need to spread about a tablespoon or two of salt for a one-meter square area – the size of a sidewalk slab. Use a smaller grain-size, evenly spread on icy areas only, and give it time to work before clearing.


Protect yourself from slips and falls and increase road safety:

  • Wear proper winter footwear designed for snow and ice.
  • Add removable ice spikes to your boots for walking outdoors in icy conditions.
  • Use a traction aid like sand or kitty litter on your walkway to increase traction.
  • Having snow tires on your vehicle and driving at a slower speed will increase traction, lower your chances of winter accidents, and save you money through lower insurance premiums.


Prevent future icy buildups:

  • Redirect your downspouts away from walkways and driveways.
  • Shovel and pile your snow to lower areas or onto lawns to direct melting snow away from paved areas.
  • Only use road salt when conditions are appropriate; road salt does not work when the temperature is below -10 °C.


Avoiding the use of salt on your property whenever possible and using the minimum amount of salt when necessary combined with the tips above will help us reverse the increasing concentrations of salts in our waterways, which will be good news for our wildlife, our infrastructure, and our health. Stay tuned for more ways you can help from the Muskoka Watershed Council and the Muskoka Road Salt Working Group.



It’s time to go on a LOW (road) SALT DIET



How our forests influence water flow in Muskoka

by Javier Cappella.

Water and forests in Muskoka’s watersheds are intimately linked. Muskoka’s forests are unique in their abundance. Without the intense land use pressures of southern Ontario but still far enough south to have a diverse number of tree species, the forests here are the main terrestrial use of land. Most of the rain and snow that falls on land makes its way to our lakes, rivers and streams through the forest. Forests have a huge impact on the water cycle in our watersheds, and the two are interdependent.

Rain and snow are the inputs of water into the forest. Rain is moisture that trees can absorb right away while snow is moisture held in reserve and used as it melts in the spring. Evapotranspiration and runoff are the outputs of water out of the forest. Evapotranspiration is simply the total sum of moisture from the forest to the atmosphere by evaporation of water from the soil and transpiration (think sweating through their leaves) from trees. Evapotranspiration helps to form clouds and precipitation. Runoff is water that moves across the forest floor or in the soil as groundwater, making its way down hill, to streams and lakes. Runoff enables forests to filter and regulate the flow of water across land.

Soil controls the movement of water in our forests. Soil is the main storage reservoir in forests and acts like a bucket that is filled by rain and emptied by evapotranspiration and runoff. How much water can be stored by the soil depends on the size of the bucket. Muskoka’s thin soils over bedrock act like shallow buckets that can hold only a small amount of water. Fine textured soils like clay hold more water then coarse textured soils like sand. When the capacity of the soil to hold water is reached then, just like water spilling over the edge of a bucket, water moves into streams and lakes as runoff.

Trees play an important role in slowing down the movement of water from the atmosphere to the soil. The canopy of the forest intercepts a substantial proportion of the precipitation. Trees can intercept from 10-50% of the water in one rain event. After a light rain or snowfall, it is possible that most of that water may evaporate directly to the atmosphere without ever reaching the forest floor.

The majority of water that falls as precipitation does make its way to the forest floor and some of this water makes its way along the stems of the trees. The architecture of the tree influences how much water runs down its stem. A vase shaped tree like a sugar maple will direct water towards itself while a triangular shaped tree like a white spruce will direct water away from its stem. The texture of the bark influences the direction and velocity of water moving along the stem of a tree. Smooth barked trees like American beech have greater stem flow then rough-barked trees like white ash.

Stem flow is important in forests because this water takes the express lane down the tree and into the soil through the channels created by the roots. This can provide an even distribution of water to the roots and fill the soil bucket from the bottom up reducing the amount of surface water runoff.

When planning developments on “tablelands” which remove forests, it is important to consider the ecosystem services that forests provide. Forests work to control the amount and quality of water in our lakes, rivers and streams. Individual trees play an important role in the rate and amount of flow of water through the forest and through the remainder of the watershed.

Javier Cappella is a Registered Professional Forester (R.P.F.) with Westwind Forest Stewardship Inc. and a member of the Muskoka Watershed Council.

How important is that wetland?

By Peter Sale



Wetland Photo - John McQuarrie


You’ve all seen wetlands. There are lots of them in Muskoka. Marshy, boggy, mosquito-infested, noxious places; neither a lake nor dry land; what good are wetlands, and do we need to protect them?


Yes! Muskoka’s new Official Plan is quite clear on that. Development is not permitted in provincially significant wetlands and can only occur in other wetlands after an environmental impact survey (EIS) confirms that the planned development or alteration will have no negative impacts on the wetland or on its ecological functions. The Official Plan also notes climate change impacts on wetlands will require increased restrictions on development of adjacent land as climate changes.


But are all wetlands equally important? Could we get by with slightly fewer? Or could we infill and develop the edges of a wetland without detriment to environmental quality? Just because Nature left a place a bit boggy, do we have to leave it that way?


Consider all the things wetlands do for us. As part of our natural capital, wetlands provide many valuable ecosystem services to people. They provide critical habitat for valued fish and waterfowl and for 90% of our species at risk. They retain, sequester, break down and make biologically available the sediments, phosphates, nitrates and many other chemicals carried by runoff from land that would otherwise pollute our waters. They recharge groundwater stores and sequester large quantities of carbon in peat and soils, carbon that would otherwise be released to the atmosphere as greenhouse gases. During floods, they retain large quantities of water while slowing water flows, but they release water to surface streams during droughts.


Muskoka has different types of wetlands: Marshes, fed by surface streams, are seasonally or permanently flooded with shrub, grass and reed vegetation. Swamps are like marshes but usually drier and have trees present. Fens, fed by groundwater or streams, have saturated soils, little surface water, neutral to alkaline pH, dense grasses, sedges and moss, and deep layers of peat beneath. Bogs, fed only by direct precipitation, are much like fens in appearance but are acidic in pH and nutrient poor; they have sphagnum moss, carnivorous plants, and abundant peat. Each wetland provides a mix of services depending on its size, type, location and several other factors. Wetland science can specify the value, but not by only considering type and area, as we now do. Value depends also on other factors: Is it nestled in a rocky depression or a valley with deep soils? Is it fed by surface streams, or dependent on runoff and groundwater? Is it near farmland or a forest? (These are among the questions an EIS could answer but seldom does.)


How can municipalities make fair decisions about development proposals when wetlands are involved? Current development approval processes attempt to assess the value of wetlands, and consequences of any degradation that development might cause. There is, however, room for improvement, and climate change is creating new complexities for planners and developers. The flow-mitigation services, for example, are becoming much more valuable as climate change increases flooding risk. So are the carbon storage services provided by bogs and fens.


Integrated Watershed Management (IWM) could significantly improve assessments of wetlands. The watershed-scale approach to planning, fostered by IWM, ensures consideration of the full suite of ecosystem services being provided by a wetland, including services that only become apparent far downstream. IWM supported by an interactive hydrological model, can do even better, because consequences of a proposed development can be tested in a modelling exercise before any shovel bites the dirt. Understanding the value of wetlands and treating them sensitively is a crucial part of managing our natural environment and, in turn, the health of our economy and the quality of our lives.



Peter Sale is a Member of the Muskoka Watershed Council.  This is one of a series of articles on the environment.