The Muskoka River Watershed

The Muskoka River Watershed consists of 15 sub-watersheds, stretching over 5,100 square kilometres, that empty into the southeastern shores of Georgian Bay.

Its vast forests and more than 2,000 lakes are home to approximately:

  • 30 species of fish such as Lake Trout, Yellow Perch and Walleye
  • 250 species of birds
  • 50 species of mammals
  • 35 species of reptiles and amphibians

The Muskoka River Watershed is one of the highlights of our province and a vibrant hub for Ontario’s tourism industry.

This important ecosystem helps support a $400-million tourism and recreational economy and attracts year-round residential development.

Environmental challenges

The Muskoka River Watershed is changing as a result of climate change and human development projects. Some of the environmental issues impacting the watershed include:

  • increases in flooding
  • increases in shoreline erosion
  • threats to water quality
  • threats to biodiversity and natural habitat

Protecting the watershed

Our Made-in-Ontario Environment Plan commits to protecting and restoring watersheds to keep Ontario beautiful and pass on a cleaner environment to future generations.

Effective watershed management is important to the people in our communities, especially as watersheds face pressures due to:

  • increased development
  • flooding caused by severe weather events

The Muskoka Watershed Conservation and Management Initiative

In August 2018, we announced a $5 million Muskoka Watershed Conservation and Management Initiative to better identify risks and issues facing the Muskoka Region. This initiative allows the community and province to work together to protect this vital area.

This initiative will:

  • help us develop a more comprehensive approach to watershed management
  • inform current actions and future development
  • support Muskoka’s residents, the local economy and a thriving tourist industry

The Muskoka Watershed Advisory Group

Ontario established the Muskoka Water Advisory Group in August 2019 to help:

  • protect and conserve the Muskoka River Watershed
  • support the economic growth of the region

The advisory group’s mandate is to:

  • provide advice and make recommendations to the minister on:
    • priority areas
    • addressing priority issues
    • types of projects that could be undertaken
  • assist in identifying municipal, federal and private funding opportunities
  • participate in public and Indigenous engagement efforts upon request from the minister
  • communicate with local organizations and communities represented by the advisory group and bring these perspectives forward during advisory group meetings

Muskoka Watershed Advisory Group interim report

The Muskoka Watershed Advisory Group submitted their interim report to the minister in summer 2020 after nearly a year of successful community listening and outreach with:

  • municipal governments
  • First Nations and Métis representatives
  • local organizations
  • stakeholders
  • the public

The interim report outlines the advisory group’s recommendations on priority actions and projects to support the development and implementation of the Muskoka Watershed Conservation and Management Initiative, including:

  • integrated watershed management
  • flood mitigation

The advisory group’s advice and recommendations will inform our next steps to protect this important watershed and will contribute to the ministry’s work to develop a more comprehensive approach to watershed management.

Projects receiving funding

In April 2021, we announced an initial investment of over $4.25 million to fund 16 projects to help reduce the impacts of flooding and address the watershed health of the Muskoka River Watershed.

The projects were awarded after careful review and consideration of the Muskoka Watershed Advisory Group’s recommendations and advice. Additional projects are in development.

The District of Muskoka and the Town of Bracebridge are leading these projects, described in the table below.

Establish a community round tableCreate a community round table to provide advice and input reflecting local perspectives in the Muskoka River Watershed
Establish task forcesCreate task forces to address water quality, land/terrestrial and water quantity management in the Muskoka River Watershed.
Develop a public communications planBuild partnerships and foster community involvement in integrated watershed management for the Muskoka River Watershed.
Baseline hydrology modelDevelop a model that incorporates the ecological structure and dynamics of the Muskoka River Watershed and characterizes its functions, such as:
  • how floods originate and how they are distributed across the watershed
  • what cost-benefits are associated with watershed management actions
  • the influence of climate change and land use on flood potential
  • potential locations for flood storage infrastructure
Operational adjustments studyIdentify operational adjustments to inform water management planning in the Muskoka River Watershed, such as:
  • mitigation strategies that focus on reducing the impacts of flooding
  • opportunities to develop and implement models and systems that could enhance ability to predict the magnitude and timing of floods
  • linkages to land use
  • environmental factors
  • the influence of existing structural measures in the watershed
Examine localized structural mitigation measuresExplore conventional and green/natural infrastructure flood mitigation approaches for specific flood prone areas of the Muskoka River Watershed.
Expanded floodplain mappingPrepare floodplain mapping across unmapped and vulnerable areas prone to flooding in the Muskoka River Watershed.
Natural capital inventoryIdentify, assess, inventory and map natural capital within the Muskoka River Watershed (including water, land, air, and renewable and non-renewable resources, such as plant and animal species, forests, air, water and soils) within the Muskoka River Watershed.
Water management plan review scoping studyIdentify the data and information needed to support potential changes to water management plans in the Muskoka River Watershed, including:
  • an assessment of the root causes of flooding, and
  • potential approaches to short-term flood mitigation.
Examine watershed-scale flood mitigation optionsIdentify options to support watershed-wide flood mitigation approaches, including:
  • environmental, economic, social and fiscal impacts, and
  • cost estimates for potential flood mitigation modifications.
Review land use policyReview land use policies by municipality, including a characterization of best-in-class policies for watershed-scale management and recommendations for consistent land use policies in the Muskoka River Watershed.
Develop watershed health indicatorsDevelop watershed health indicators that build on existing information and studies available for the Muskoka River Watershed and provide the environmental and ecological metrics necessary to support the implementation of Integrated Watershed Management.
Develop water quality indicatorsDevelop water quality health indicators that build on existing information and studies available for the Muskoka River Watershed and reflect emerging threats to aquatic ecosystem health.
Shoreline erosion studyIdentify locations throughout the Muskoka River Watershed where shoreline erosion has occurred as a result of fluctuating water levels. and the Development of strategies or techniques to remediate and limit shoreline damage.
Public access inventoryIdentify public access points throughout the Muskoka River Watershed. and the Development of local policy options that support environmental, social and economic priorities.
Muskoka River Siltation StudyCarry out a siltation and bathymetry (depth of water in rivers or lakes) study to review options and develop recommendations for the management of sediment at the delta of the Muskoka River to Lake Muskoka.

Next steps

We will share further details about additional funding for the Muskoka Watershed Conservation and Management Initiative in the near future.