MWC Chair’s Annual Report for 2023

Delivered by outgoing MWC Chair Peter Sale at MWC’s Annual General Meeting held on February 23, 2024.

The monthly meetings of Muskoka Watershed Council (MWC), usually with informative presentations on our own projects or projects being undertaken by other bodies, and open to the public, are just the tiniest glimpse of the work that MWC is undertaking. The past year has been a busy one for MWC. That is what I reported for 2022 and, if anything, 2023 was even busier. We are going to have to ensure that there are sufficient hands and minds to take on new projects as we move forward in 2024. But this comment on our level of activity moves me straight to my first topic.

Thanks to Officers, Directors, and Members

It would not be possible to find a Board more engaged and capable than the 2022-2024 Board has been. Every Director has taken responsibility for important projects, some more than one, and their engagement is a major reason for our achievements in the past year. I want particularly to thank Pete LeMoine and Daryle Moffatt who are not seeking re-election as Directors in 2024. Pete has, with Geoff Ross, been the driving force behind the completion of our Strategic Plan, while also co-chairing, with Mike Peppard, our Membership Committee, and chairing our Communications Committee. Plus stepping in to help with several events such as the launch of the 2023 Report Card, and the recent IWM conference for municipal councilors and staff. Since 2021, Daryle has contributed his financial expertise, serving as Treasurer as we moved through the final details of incorporation and commenced operation as a professional incorporated not-for-profit. His efforts have set a sound foundation for our financial management into the future. Daryle also chaired the Fundraising Committee and participated fully in policy discussions of the Board.

During the year, we have added several new Members, each of whom is bringing particular skills and experience to MWC, joining longer-serving Members in the various projects, and serving on committees. We are still learning how to fully engage our Members and the fact we have accomplished a lot this year suggests we are being successful. Many Members now participate in our communications effort, in our outreach to the community, in the meetings of the CRT, and especially in the writing of the 2023 Report Card. My thanks to all. The incoming Chair has a great team supporting him.

Navel-Gazing – Taking Care of Business

As an incorporated body, MWC has a responsibility to ensure its procedures comply with the law and are equitable, inclusive, and transparent. The intensive process of putting our house in order, necessitated by incorporation, has continued through 2023, with two major achievements. These were the finalization of our interim Policies & Procedures document, under the capable leadership of David Parsons, and the completion of our Strategic Plan, led by Pete LeMoine and Geoff Ross. We now have a living policy document (meaning it will change further) guiding our operations as a corporate body and including terms of reference for each standing committee. Approved in September, our Strategic Plan outlines the focus of MWC’s efforts over the next five years in the areas of Communication, Stewardship and Awareness; Policy and Advocacy; and Enhancing the Watershed-wide Knowledge Base. It also sets out our mission, goals, and objectives for the near future. I particularly like the inclusion of ‘enhance’ in our revised Mission Statement: “To Empower the Community to Preserve and Enhance Watershed Health.” It suggests that MWC strives to make our environment more resilient rather than just working to preserve the status quo.

Outreach to the Community

1. Attending Events

MWC members and staff attended various events throughout 2023 with a display and/or presentation, including the HPS Eco-Fest in June, the Haliburton-Muskoka-Kawartha Children’s Water Festival in October, as well as several lake association AGMs across the region.

Kevin Trimble presenting about IWM to the Lake of Bays Association.
Kevin Trimble presenting about IWM to the Lake of Bays Association.

2. Articles in the Media

Under the capable editorial leadership of Neil Hutchinson, several members authored 16 articles on “Our Changing Watershed” that appeared weekly in The Muskokan during summer of 2023. These articles were well-received and often discussed in the community. They are all available in the MWC Blog where they continue to be viewed.  With that initial success, I undertook to provide the editorial leadership for a winter series of 16 articles on “The State of Our Watershed” that focus on the findings from the 2023 Report Card. A team of nine MWC members are authoring these articles, which are appearing weekly on the site until mid-April 2024. These are also available on the MWC Blog, and again, they are getting noticed in the community. We need an editorial lead for the next series to commence in April.

3. Social Media Blitz

Our new Communications Committee, led by Pete LeMoine, with able guidance from Julia Rodgerson and Rebecca Willison, embarked on an ambitious social media campaign timed to the release of the Report Card in September 2023 and continuing with close to 4 posts per week on each of Facebook, X (Twitter), LinkedIn and Instagram. MWC has long had an important presence on social media, but this represents a significant increase in outreach about our own activities. It takes work to generate posts that attract attention, so MWC needs additional volunteers to help keep this blitz going. Talk to any member of the Communications team if you are interested.

4. Report Card Launch

MWC released our 6th Muskoka Watershed Report Card in September with a launch event at the Muskoka Discovery Centre in Gravenhurst. This event marked the end of a year-long effort to produce the report (see more below).

2023 Muskoka Watershed Report Card launch at the Muskoka Discovery Centre in Gravenhurst.
2023 Muskoka Watershed Report Card launch at the Muskoka Discovery Centre in Gravenhurst.

Engagement with Watershed Municipalities

1. Delegations to Municipal Councils

MWC continued its enhanced program of delegating to municipalities in 2023, making one visit to each of the 13 lower tier municipalities that lie at least partially within the Muskoka River Watershed to provide them with information on the main messages from the Report Card, and on the need for IWM. A follow-up visit was made to each of the eight lower tier municipalities that are represented on MWC with requests for funding to help expand our efforts on IWM in 2024. This was the first time we had approached municipalities for financial support other than nominal contributions toward Report Card or Handbook publication costs. Results of budget deliberations are not yet final, but it appears likely that the great majority of municipalities will be providing support. Now we must ensure our efforts in 2024 meet expectations.

The District Municipality of Muskoka has been a vital supporter since the inception of MWC in 2001. MWC delegated twice to DMM Council on aspects of the integrated watershed management initiative. As well, we held important meetings with DMM staff, in particular Commissioner of Community and Planning Services, Arfona Zwiers, Director of Environmental and Watershed Programs, Christy Doyle, and Manager of Watershed Programs, Glenn Cunnington, as a result of which MWC and DMM are now in the process of finalizing a formal agreement defining the unique relationship between us.

2. IWM Conference for Municipalities

On 9th February, 2024, MWC hosted a one-day conference for councilors and staff for all municipalities with a footprint within the Muskoka River Watershed. The six speakers included Jack Imhof from Trout Unlimited Canada, Dr. Barbara Veale of Conservation Halton, Kathleen Padulo, Director of Environment for Chiefs of Ontario, and Sandra Cooke from the Canadian Water Network, as well as Norman Yan and Peter Sale. Jack, Barbara, and Sandra brought expertise in aspects of integrated watershed management while Kathleen provided indigenous perspectives. MWC Director and former Chair Kevin Trimble was the moderator, and the conference was opened by Brian Dwayne Sarazin with a moving land and water acknowledgement including two songs. There was ample time for discussion during the day-long event.

The Town of Bracebridge generously provided the conference venue at the Sportsplex, and lunch was catered by the students in the Hospitality and Tourism program at Bracebridge and Muskoka Lakes Secondary School.

Photo of local and regional IWM advocates.
Bringing a greater understanding of the need for IWM in the Muskoka Region (from left to right): Peter Sale, Sandra Cooke, Jack Imhof, Kevin Trimble, Deborah Martin-Downs, Neil Hutchinson, Julie Cayley, Glenn Cunnington, Barbara Veale, Norman Yan, Kathleen Padulo and Brian Dwayne Sarazin.

3. Providing Comment on Municipal Policy Documents

MWC has been providing detailed written comment on draft Official Plans and similar policy documents as municipalities within our region put draft documents up for public comment. We had anticipated undertaking this task for two municipalities this past year, but in both cases, progress on the revised documents has not yet reached the public review stage. I anticipate we will be undertaking two or more such reviews in 2024.

Our Projects

1. The 2023 Muskoka Watershed Report Card

MWC released its 6th Report Card in September 2023. While most people see only a four-page document, the production of each report card requires a major effort and represents one of the most important tasks MWC undertakes. Generating the Report Card – a four-page document on glossy paper (!) backed by a 194-page Background Report – was a major focus of MWC commencing in October 2022 by a sizeable team of Members and other volunteers, many of whom are authors of the chapters in the Background Report. The focus of this Report Card was on possible trends in the data collected over the past decade or longer, rather than on current status. The findings of the 2023 Muskoka Watershed Report Card indicate that, while Muskoka’s watersheds are currently healthy, they are gradually degrading in several ways, and our existing management systems seem incapable of halting or reversing this negative trend. We need an integrated, watershed-scale management system capable of dealing with the multiple stresses our iconic environment now faces.

Production of the 2023 Report Card was supported with funding from The Great Muskoka Paddling Experience, Muskoka River X, and our Doug Cross Endowment, as well as a generous donation from Seguin Township. The District Municipality of Muskoka provided significant GIS and ‘data-crunching’ support in addition to substantial data and the time of Glenn Cunnington, Julia Rodgerson (now an MWC Member), and, of course, Rebecca Willison.

The 2023 Report Card continues to garner attention from the community as we refer to it in social media posts and traditional media articles. It provides important data supporting our project to bring IWM to this region.

2. Our Monitoring Projects

MWC worked with the Six Mile Lake Cottagers Association to bring the Love Your Lake shoreline assessment program to Six Mile Lake in 2023. Through the program, staff and volunteers assessed the shoreline of all 969 properties on the lake and attended events to promote the program and answer questions. Personalized property reports for each property will be available in spring 2024.

LYL Shoreline Assessment Technician Thomas Woods at the SMLCA Regatta in August 2023.
LYL Shoreline Assessment Technician Thomas Woods at the SMLCA Regatta in August 2023.

MWC staff conducted 20 site visits to properties across Muskoka as part of The Natural Edge shoreline re-naturalization program. Eight Shoreline Re-naturalization Starter Kits were distributed to landowners and 941 native trees, shrubs, wildflowers, grasses, ferns and groundcovers were planted.

Volunteers from 14 lake associations across the Muskoka region collected water samples every two weeks from May to October and analyzed them for chlorophyll a and phycocyanin as part of MWC’s Algae Monitoring Program. The results will be released in early 2024. There is space for two to three more lake associations to join this program in 2024.

3. Stewardship Awards

MWC supported the recognition of nine watershed stewards by their respective organizations in 2023 through the Doug Cross Stewardship Recognition Program and the Robert Allen Memorial Stewardship Award. Each recipient received a gift card to Hidden Habitat native plant nursery so they can continue their good work by supporting a great local business and local biodiversity!

At the June meeting, MWC presented its own Doug Cross award to Dr. Richard Lammers, a long-time member who brings his expertise in hydrology and climate change to MWC initiatives.

MWC Chair Peter Sale presents MWC member Richard Lammers with the stewardship award
MWC Chair Peter Sale (L) presents MWC member Richard Lammers with the stewardship award.

4. Integrated Watershed Management

I’ve left to last what is becoming our most important and our most ambitious project since MWC was formed back in 2001. The concept of IWM is directly aligned with the original vision for MWC as articulated by Ken Black 22 years ago, and our interest in Integrated Watershed Management as an approach that was needed in our region began to percolate in 2018. We published our white paper “A Case for Integrated Watershed Management in Muskoka” in 2020, and MWC is committed to help bring IWM to this region. Acting on a request from DMM in early 2021, MWC formed the Community Roundtable (CRT), a relatively large committee, predominantly of non-MWC members that would function to facilitate communication of ideas between MWC and the wider community. In addition, the CRT would provide input on the results of the 12 environmental projects that DMM was managing within the portfolio of 16 projects funded by the provincial government’s Muskoka Watershed Conservation and Management Initiative during 2021-2023.

Under the able leadership of Kevin Trimble, assisted by Geoff Ross, the CRT continued meeting monthly (with several additional meetings interspersed) throughout 2023. Content of these meetings ranged from presentations from the consultants who undertook the 12 projects, other presentations designed to educate and inform the members of CRT on the nature and value of IWM, and discussions and action to disseminate information beyond the CRT to the wider community.

MWC was awarded one of the 16 provincially funded projects. It focused on a case study review of successful IWM governance models around North America. The District then provided additional funds to MWC to retain expert advice on how to move the IWM process forward.

A number of CRT members have bolstered MWC’s skill sets for watershed planning, land use planning, communications and First Nations engagement, to name a few.  Some have worked as part of the MWC Communications Committee in providing social media content and media articles, and two CRT members, Greg and Kathleen Padulo have been instrumental in building relationships between MWC and indigenous communities in this region. CRT members were also engaged in planning for MWC’s February 9th conference for municipal councilors and staff.

Have We Been Making a Difference?

Everywhere I go in Muskoka I hear positive comments about the value of what Muskoka Watershed Council is doing. It’s possible that I move only in circles filled with our loyal supporters but I don’t think so. Still, we all need to do a better job of tracking such comments – the most valuable ones will be the ones that include suggestions for becoming even more effective.

Our Board made a decision during 2023 to have all our members track their actions on behalf of MWC, but a program to do this has yet to be implemented. Such information will guide our leaders because it will reveal the extent of the tasks our members are undertaking. With estimated time spent, such data will also be useful when we want to match volunteer time in lieu of dollars when submitting grant applications. Anticipate more on this very soon, and start to track your own participation now – everything from attending an AGM to participating in a Zoom call, working on a committee, staffing a display at an outside event; it all counts. And I know the total time of our members will be enormous.

Another gauge of our effectiveness in reaching out to our community is through the information available on our outreach through social media. Here are some data from 2023.

  • The MWC website had 29,891 views in 2023.
  • MWC’s Facebook account had 1,192 followers (33 new) in 2023, and the 370 posts garnered 43,814 post impressions.
  • MWC’s Instagram account had 551 followers (9 new), and the 66 posts garnered 5,398 post impressions.
  • MWC’s Twitter (X) account had 1,618 followers (4 new) in 2023, and the 142 posts gained 4,053 post impressions (these numbers are likely low because of the turmoil at X over the last year).
  • MWC’s LinkedIn account, created in 2023, had 149 followers and the 59 posts gained 9,818 post impressions.

In addition, one reason is carrying our weekly articles this winter is because of the large number of hits to their site from our summer series of articles. I personally have no doubt at all that the Muskoka Watershed Council is proving effective in its mission to empower the community to preserve and enhance watershed health.