Integrated management of the Muskoka River Watershed: Time to get started!

Integrated Watershed Management requires a culture shift in the way we think but is a more effective way to manage our environment and economy.

By Kevin Trimble.

Bracebridge Bay - Photo by John McQuarrie

Muskoka Watershed Council (MWC) has reported disturbing trends in our environment that will affect our quality of life if they aren’t addressed. Information on MWC’s website and in the media describes why the status quo will not maintain the high quality of our environment. MWC, the District of Muskoka, the Muskoka Lakes Association and other groups are calling for Integrated Watershed Management (IWM) as a solution. But it will take much time and effort before IWM can commence.

IWM is a process for concurrently addressing multiple issues in conservation and land-use planning at a watershed ecosystem scale. Present management focuses on solving localized, individual problems as they come up. IWM requires a culture shift in the way we think but is a more effective way to manage our environment and economy. It is being used elsewhere in Ontario, across North America and in other countries, but until recently, it hasn’t been considered here. IWM addresses environmental management in a context of economic development, climate adaptation, land-use decisions, community amenities and infrastructure planning.

Do we have those capabilities in place now? Do we have the knowledge to predict and set multidisciplinary, watershed-wide goals for all of our local planning decisions? No. We currently have 17 municipalities attempting separately to manage a rapidly changing environment in the Muskoka River Watershed. We also lack important watershed-based information, broad objectives and decision-making tools needed to achieve a sustainable environment.

In addition, one of our greatest challenges in the near term is that it’s difficult to see gradual environmental changes. Without an obvious problem with our environment, constituents aren’t yet demanding change from local politicians.

MWC has begun the process of informing the public, hopefully generating the community will to empower the changes that are needed. It is important that a broad base of stakeholders rally around a common desired future in order to implement IWM.

IWM can’t be implemented by a single government body, nor in only one part of a watershed. It requires strong collaboration across municipal governments and effective communication with business sectors, Indigenous communities, NGOs, residents and resource users. Municipal governments, as planning authorities for land-use decisions, have a major role to play in shaping IWM.

To design and implement IWM, we must first characterize how our watershed works as a whole complex system, what it is most vulnerable to and, most importantly, what our environmental targets should be. What do we want our watershed to look like in the future? Muskoka has long benefited from a highly engaged community of citizen scientists, municipal politicians and active public sector research and monitoring of the environment. Recent projects funded by the province have significantly enhanced that knowledge base. We must now synthesize existing information and expand on it. This requires co-ordination among multiple partners, a clear understanding of what we need to do and the funds to get there.

IWM also requires integration of environmental and socio-economic management. Our communities and our economy are also part of the watershed. What we value and how we make decisions are a critical part of understanding how we can manage and adapt to the changing environmental conditions in our watershed. We’ve started to work toward IWM, but we all have work to do.

Kevin Trimble
Kevin Trimble, Director

This is the second in a series of articles from Muskoka Watershed Council on “The State of Our Watershed” published on Each will explore aspects of our environment revealed in our 2023 Muskoka Watershed Report Card and identify new management challenges. This week’s contributor is Kevin Trimble, a retired ecologist who is director and a former chair of MWC.