Watershed Values

Watershed Values

Using watersheds as our basic geographic unit has helped conservation of rivers and their drainage basins. Assigning values to different parts of watersheds will let us set priorities that will make our watershed stewardship even more effective.

The higher priority previously given to downstream sections of watersheds by flood control programs is not effective in improving water management for a watershed. Emphasis on the downstream portion of the watershed leads mainly to simply engineered patching aimed at preventing flooding of human infrastructure.

In contrast, watershed stewardship programs aim for remediation and protection of the natural processes of the entire watershed that prevent or tame such floods. Such watershed stewardship is most effective if applied close to where the rain hits the ground, before it becomes a downstream flood crest.

For example, on June 4, 2005, 4 inches (101.6 mm) of rain fell on the rain gauges at Kennebec Lake. Assuming that the same amount of rain fell across all the drainage basin upstream of the lake (66,560 acres) and assuming that it all ran off quickly, that amount of rain would have raised the lake level by over 55 inches (139.7 cm or 4.58 feet). The lake level was carefully recorded; it rose only 14 inches. The Kennebec Lake subwatershed allowed only 6.7 % of the rain to form the flood crest.

The Kennebec Lake subwatershed is the top end of the Salmon River watershed; this moderation of the runoff provided ecosystem services to the entire Salmon River watershed all the way to Shannonville.

The upstream portion of any watershed is the most important in providing the natural processes that manage our river flows for us. The upstream portion is the most valuable portion in terms of watershed stewardship and conservation.

Moderation of runoff peaks, such as in this example, is not delivered equally by all rivers that flow down off the Canadian Shield. After the storm in the example above, the nearby Black and Skootamatta Rivers received higher flood crests, less moderated than the Salmon (see Merriam and Carmichael, Figs. 6.1 to 6.6, The Salmon River Watershed). Many rivers flowing off the Shield have very high runoff and very low amounts of rain soaking into the land. No wonder – there is a lot of bare rock and very little soil on the Shield. The expectation for ‘shield rivers’ is ‘whitewater’ in spring and wet rocks in late summer, not constancy. So how does the upper Salmon watershed (the Kennebec Lake subwatershed) moderate flow?

The answer lies in the Kennebec Wetland Complex, an area above Highway 7 extending from Highway 41 east to include Mink and Hungry Lakes and north to the Mississippi watershed just south of Big Gull Lake. In that huge area there is a wetland every 750 metres in all directions. (Hence “complex” rather than individually named wetlands.) There are so many wetlands that the Ministry of Natural Resources has been unable to describe each one in detail.

Some wetlands sit above bedrock faults and their water recharges the groundwater.  Others simply trap and hold rainfall, evaporate some, cleanse the rest by processing through aquatic plants, and release it downstream slowly, thus moderating the flood crest after such storms as the one on September 8-9, 2004. This is how the upstream area of the Salmon watershed moderated the runoff from the sudden September storm.

Water runs slowly into the Salmon River at many points in the upper part of the watershed. Just below Highway 7, Big Clear Lake adds water gathered from its smaller subwatershed, joining the Salmon through Arden Creek and Arden Lake. Further downstream, at the southern edge of the Canadian Shield, Gull Creek brings water from Gull, Puzzle, Loyst, Norway, Big McNeill and Bear Lakes and associated wetlands in Puzzle Lake Provincial Park. At Erinsville, on the north edge of the Napanee limestone plain, Beaver Lake adds a little, very much more limey, water from west of Road 41.

Topographic maps and satellite images make clear that the sources of water entering the Salmon and the degree of moderation of that flow is concentrated in the upper parts of the watershed. If a program were really aimed at “protecting the sources of water”, the upper watershed would be the high priority area.

Unfortunately, policy dictated by political pressure on the Conservation Authorities is focused downstream where fear of flood damage is severe but where long term moderation of floods by enhanced natural processes can not be engaged in water management.

Although the upper watershed should be given high value, the entire watershed should be planned and protected. Downstream is the Bay of Quinte, Lake Ontario, the St. Lawrence and the Atlantic. The lower watershed on the limestone plain has the highest agricultural potential, the most development and the highest density of humans. Natural processes here require exact planning and care as we fit our activities into the system. That planning requires the acknowledgement that natural forces often are too strong to oppose and should be enlisted not challenged.

Holistic planning for the entire watershed also is needed because we are planning not only for ourselves but also for all the other living beings and vital natural processes that we must protect if we want their ecological support into the future.




Stewardship Not Management


If we consider long-term plans for the Salmon River, some fundamental points are clear. “Management” of the river is the mistaken (and arrogant) philosophy that has resulted in disused dams, destroyed cold-water habitats, species threatened by interrupted migrations, and placing of built structures where they depend on unsustainable engineering of water levels assumed to be constant. Instead we need to think about stewardship plans.

The Whole Watershed


         Stewardship thinking needs to be based on protected natural processes operating across the watershed, the naturally integrated unit of water flow. Protected natural processes are more easily sustained than managed or engineered processes. Natural processes are naturally solar-powered and consequently require no economic adjustments or questionable projections. For any planned processes that are not natural, we must accept the responsibilities – scientific, technical, economic, and managerial – for their sustenance. Historically, we have not done well at sustaining even fragments of processes of water flow on the land, let alone whole watershed “management”. Consider the reasons for the “drinking water protection program”, downgraded from “source water protection”.

Commitment to whole watershed stewardship planning requires coordination of planning for: forestry, agriculture, tourism and recreation, transportation, communication, municipal development, and regional economics. There are many benefits from this coordinated approach. Bureaucratic fragmentation will resist the required coordination but local understanding of the watershed and strong attachment of citizens to it can provide the necessary integration.


IPAT and Other Values


Impact = Population X Affluence X Technology (IPAT) has replaced Impact = Population X Consumption but the basics are unchanged. Successful stewardship will require attention to these fundamentals. Planning to fit humans into a watershed while protecting natural processes requires avoiding critical impacts. At the same time, increases in the human population of the watershed will increase that impact. The affluence of those people also can increase the impact if it causes increased consumption of natural resources and increased production of “waste”. Dynamically increasing technology also can add to the resource costs and to the environmental impacts.

Reducing the effect of the “P”, the “A” and the “T” must be an objective of watershed planning. None will be stopped but long-term plans must make them less damaging.


Politics, Resources and Grassroots


Who can initiate long-term watershed stewardship planning? Conservation Authorities are the only Ontario agencies with mandates defined by watersheds. Unfortunately, integrated plans of watershed stewardship are not evident in their recent activities, although that was their original objective in the 1940’s, 50’s and 60’s. CA budgets do not permit the detailed discovery or monitoring work needed for holistic planning. No provincial ministries or programs have activities fitting the needs outlined here. Stewardship Councils could have applied appropriate programs. Lake associations are growing stronger but many focus mainly only on lakefront areas and do not reach out to their whole subwatersheds.

Without increased provincial funding specifically targeted on watershed stewardship, the work falls to volunteer groups. For the Salmon River watershed this means The Friends of the Salmon River and a few lake associations such as those for Kennebec, Big Clear, Horseshoe, Sheffield (if an association were formed), and Beaver.

State of the lake data for these lakes would be a good first step that could be taken by volunteers with existing support from the province, such as the Lake Partners Program. Some of these lakes already have such data in varying amounts.

Currently, provincial municipal planning rests with the townships, some of whom have voiced support for lake planning but none for watershed planning. They falsely assume that is looked after by the Conservation Authorities. This conduct of planning under the Planning Act is changing. Ultimate authority for planning is being given to some counties and predicted to move to other counties soon. Despite resistance by townships, planning capability is being developed by Frontenac County. See, for example, their excellent on-line accessible Geographic Information System. Coordination among the County, the struggling Stewardship Council, and the Conservation Authorities is underway. In May 2013, the County will support a two-day workshop where selected experts will wrestle with the question: what are the few elements that are vital to a stewardship plan for a small region?

Because planning under the Planning Act has historically been dominated by urban and suburban planning, most planners received their certification in those topics. No planning schools specialize in watershed planning or in lake planning although some group projects have appeared. With this planning history, volunteer groups must influence the thinking of the planners at County toward understanding of and priority for the different parts of a watershed. Planning objectives need to incorporate the natural processes critical to sustaining a fully functional watershed. New knowledge is needed about the interaction of natural processes with human population, built development, and tourist- and retirement-based rural economies. Our area, the Lakeland of Eastern Ontario needs creative, new planning models that recognize and incorporate the natural richness that is our future capital.


Stewardship, Not Engineered Management


         Objectives need to be in terms of a naturally functioning watershed with people fitted into it and supported by it without disrupting vital processes. Past approaches holding benefits to humans, largely economically evaluated, as the sole objective are generally recognized as no longer tenable. Natural processes vital to long-term functioning of the watershed need higher priority. Without conservation of those processes the system will not truly recover from an impact. Instead, it will be degraded. Without functioning natural processes, the human component of the system will lack support in the future. We humans will not be able to fund technically engineered substitutes for the all vital watershed processes required by the entire integrated system. We have passed the times when another technical innovation can be offered believably as the solution to any problem. Just consider global climate change and global human population.







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