collaboration accueil manuel copeh

There is a Monster in the Lake


by Julie Truelove

June 16th 2022


Muskrat Lake in the Ottawa Valley has a long and storied history of being the home to a lake monster affectionately called Mussie, or more formally named Hapyxelor. [i], [ii]  The lake being a long, narrow, and deep 'loch' akin to Loch Ness adds to the mystery and intrigue as do local testimonials to various sightings of Mussie over many decades. While the presence of Mussie remains a mystery, questions remain on the health and sustainability of Muskrat Lake.  Muskrat Lake is the largest body of water in the Muskrat Watershed and is a natural resource valued for its fish and wildlife habitat, recreational activities, with permanent and seasonal residents. The lake supports many species of fish - pike, pickerel, bass, rainbow smelt and perch.  Importantly, due to the depth of Muskrat Lake, it has always been considered a cold-water habitat as one of few lakes in the area that can support a lake trout population. The lake also hosts a wide variety of waterfowl, aquatic and other animal species, and provides drinking water for some property owners and for the village of Cobden of about 1000 residents. In present times, the ‘monster’ most often seen in Muskrat Lake is blue-green algae blooms.

Algae Bloom 2014

There are complex challenges facing the watershed across natural, socio-economic, and administrative perspectives.  The most visible factor is incidence of blue-green algal blooms in Muskrat Lake that result in closed beaches and warnings against use of lake water for bathing, drinking and swimming, and speculation of quick fixes to the overall reduction in watershed health.  Non-point sources of contamination, including agricultural runoff, shoreline erosion and the internal nutrient loading of the lake, have led to high levels of phosphorus negatively impacting water quality. Each of the five municipalities that comprise the watershed face limited financial capacity with this rural area not traditionally a priority for provincial or federal government investment.  The economy of the region is predominantly driven by tourism, including fishing in winter and summer, whitewater rafting expedition companies on the Ottawa River, agriculture, and small businesses with limited industry.  

While all stakeholders agree there are significant problems in the watershed, the region lacked a cohesive, collaborative platform with sufficient financial and institutional capacity and accountability to manage and steward the watershed for future health and wellbeing of ecosystems and residents.  Residents and municipalities have determined that a provincial conservation authority model is not “possible or desirable” [iii]  and, across the five municipalities of the watershed, there are uncertainties around ownership and responsibility for upstream and downstream conditions.

Since 2013, the Muskrat Watershed Council (MWC) has emerged as a leading voice for actions in the watershed as a volunteer council drawing expertise from academics, non-governmental organizations, provincial and federal government and the private sector.  Engaged volunteers and concerned citizens have strived to keep watershed management on the agenda of all levels of government and explore methods of other watersheds facing the same challenges.

MWC volunteer tree plantingActions seeing the most success have been those to better understand water quality in the watershed, the sources of phosphorus and other pollutants and establishing key partnerships for this research. Importantly, this understanding needs to be continually shared in ways that best respond to the interests and awareness of various constituents – permanent and seasonal landowners, expert researchers, youth, farmers, business owners, residents and politicians, among others.  Some were most concerned the beach was closed for swimming whereas others were concerned with the economic impact on their business and others were looking to point blame for poor water quality. What began as Community Science Nights open to the public; kitchen meetings of neighbours in the farming community; partnering with Environmental Technician Students of Algonquin College for water sampling and shoreline planting [iv] has emerged into a more transdisciplinary approach over time to bring diverse stakeholders together around the shared goal of supporting watershed health.

MWC water sampling 2019It is a complex system for which no quick fix exists, as much as many people wish for an answer that responds to their needs which may be at the expense of others. Much work continues to reach a more shared understanding of the varied demands placed on the land and waters and how individual and collective actions impact ecosystem health in the Muskrat Watershed. There continues to be resource constraints and reliance on a volunteer group can present challenges for succession planning and accountability for decision-making by municipalities.

Bridging science and community is vital for building and sustaining progress in the watershed. This is particularly critical when disparities exist in who participates, whose voices hold power, where science can present evidence, and how this evidence is communicated across diverse groups. While the evidence may still be lacking to identify the monster in Muskrat Lake, collective actions towards the health and biodiversity of the watershed are supported by science and community towards a more sustainable future.

Photos: Muskrat Watershed Council

[iii] Brouse, K. and Wilson, W., 2015.  Water Quality in Renfrew County:  How Can Agriculture Play a Role?  Intersol/LeanAdvisors, Ottawa, ON.

[iv] Hall, S., 2016, Ecologically Relevant Eutrophication Indicators for the Muskrat Lake Watershed.