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Muskrat Watershed council talks cooperation

By Stephen Uhler, The Daily Observer


Cleaning up Muskrat Lake and the entirety of its watershed will require the group will of everyone.

However, the head of the newly formed Muskrat Watershed Council said the council wants to work with all groups and municipalities as they take the first steps towards rehabilitating the waters.

"This is one of the most significant environmental challenges we face," Rosalie Burton said, as she addressed Renfrew County's development and property committee recently. What she and the group are hoping for is to get the county and others to join them in helping to clean it up.

The Muskrat River Watershed is 500 square kilometres in area and encompasses the Townships of North Algona Wilberforce, Laurentian Valley, Admaston Bromley, Whitewater Region and the City of Pembroke.

The watershed council formed this February in response to growing concerns about the state of Muskrat Lake, located within Cobden and area. The lake's poor water quality has been the subject of concern and controversy for decades, and following a series of public meetings and studies on the matter came the will to do something about it.

"Muskrat Lake is among those with the highest recorded levels of phosphates in Ontario," Burton said. The lake is the end point for the watershed, and it has a very limited capacity to fix itself. What needs to be done is to reduce the amount of nutrients entering it, such as manure and fertilizer run off, which is the likely source of the phosphates.

She said this has been causing regular algal blooms, which have been increasing in frequency and severity, and the appearance of blue-green algae, a serious public health issue.

"We've had that occur for three out of the past six summers," Burton said, and it is only going to get worse.

This water quality problem impacts the fisheries by degrading aquatic ecosystems, reducing the quality of life for residents, tourists and recreation users, hurts business and development and leads to reduced property values and taxation.

She said they realize the problem took many decades to develop to this point, and will take as many decades to reverse, but they have to start somewhere. Since the problem involves a watershed which covers many jurisdictions, all parties involved must be included as part of the solution.

"There have been studies done and water sampling done, but we need to focus," Burton said, noting once they get this information together and they understand what the sources of the phosphorus blooms and the nitrates coming into the water are, they'll then be able to set targets. Provincial agencies like the Ministry of Natural Resources and the Ministry of the Environment have been more than willing to share their data with the group to help them in this work.

"That's the long-term strategy, to set targets for the various sectors on the lake," she said. "We're in this for the long haul."

What they are not interested in is the drafting of regulations and forcing people to comply. Instead, they hope to convince those within the watershed to take "baby steps" to improve things, as clean water is in everyone's interest.

Burton hopes the county will back them when they apply for federal and provincial grants, help them get the word out, and encourage others to join in.

Admaston/Bromley Township Mayor Raye-Anne Briscoe said while the goal is admirable, they cannot forget to include private landowners in their discussions and efforts, many of whom depend on their land for their livelihood.

"We earn our living there, ladies and gentlemen, and you got to involve us," she said, noting she lives within the Bonnechere River watershed, and has had people trespassing on her land to take water samples.

"That really makes us angry" to be disregarded that way, Briscoe said. Burton told her they will be consulting with landowners as their efforts progress.

Stephen Uhler is a Daily Observer multimedia journalist

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