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Connecting the Drops: A Case for Integrated Watershed Management

The Muskoka Stewardship Conference is organized by the Muskoka Watershed Council (MWC) every two years. The themes for the conferences are based on the premise that in order to manage something we must first understand it. The 2019 conference looked at understanding the watershed as a living system in which everything is connected to everything else, hence the theme “Connecting the Drops”.


On April 26th an exceptional cast of experts from various professional and evidence-based disciplines and backgrounds who have come to understand in detail how watersheds work shared their insights with over 125 participants from across the Muskoka area and beyond.


“Connecting the drops” means looking at the watershed as an integrated ecosystem of soil, land, forests, water, plants and animals; and managing our interactions with it accordingly. The complexity and difficulty of such an understanding of the watershed was underlined by comments such as “ecology is not rocket science – it is more complex than that”; and “complex problems often have easy-to-understand WRONG answers.”


But such an understanding, as complex as it may be, is essential if we are to avoid the kind of mistakes in managing interactions with our environment that humans have made in the past.


A key dimension of a better way of understanding our watershed is the integrated approach. One example of an integrated understanding of our watershed was inspired by the flooding this spring in Muskoka, which were peaking on the day of the conference. It was noted that controlling water movement through the watershed is not just a matter of rivers and dams, but is also influenced by the watershed’s natural infrastructure, which includes headwater channels, wetlands, forests and soils. For example, consider that forests are key water managers that recycle 60 – 70% of all rainfall. Also, wetlands and aquifers store much of the water that would otherwise run off during precipitation or snow melt. And the quality of the water in our lakes and rivers is influenced by local geology, soils, plants, living organisms and the atmosphere. The quantity and quality of water in turn influence plants, living organisms, human health and the economy. Thus, the watershed as an ecosystem functions as the whole thing together and not just the sum of its parts. A recurring theme during the day was that in order to protect the water we need to protect the land.


As applied to watershed planning, the ecosystem approach means integrating social, economic and environmental needs. It is likely that wise attention to the ecosystem’s natural infrastructure (lands, forests, wetlands, lakes and rivers) is the best way to protect our man-made infrastructure (buildings, roads, bridges, storm sewers, drinking water and wastewater systems).


Protecting the ecosystem that is our watershed also protects the benefits that our ecosystem provides to us. These are known as “ecosystem services”, and include:

  • “Provisions” such as water, food, fibre and timber;
  • Local climate regulation, carbon sequestration;
  • Moderation of extreme events such as flooding and erosion;
  • Wastewater treatment and clean air;
  • Species habitat and maintenance of genetic diversity; and
  • Cultural services supporting recreation, tourism, aesthetics and spirituality.

Studies, some looking specifically at Muskoka, estimate the enormous economic value of these services. In Muskoka, the environment is the economy.


When we consider managing impacts on our ecosystem from human actions it is common to look at each action in isolation, and to implement requirements for those actions, again in isolation. These can take the form of minimum building setbacks, standards for releases to the environment, etc. But what the ecosystem really experiences are cumulative effects, commonly defined as effects on the environment that result from the incremental and accumulating impacts of an action when added to other past, present and reasonably foreseeable future actions. These effects can result from individually minor but collectively significant actions taking place over a period of time and space. The various effects can simply add up, or one can amplify or reduce the effects of others.


Though the need for and advantages of cumulative effects management are evident, there are currently no good examples of effective pre-emptive application of the cumulative effects approach in Canada. This is an issue that urgently requires our attention, and which can best be addressed as part of integrated watershed management.


Copies of the presentations can be found at



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