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International Watershed Activities


We are Part of An International Watershed

Kenora and Lake of the Woods are within a watershed that is shared by Ontario, Manitoba and Minnesota.  The future holds much promise for increased activity and shared watershed management in this basin, given the recent establishment in 2013 of the International Joint Commission’s International Rainy-Lake of the Woods Watershed Board, the recent commitment of the Canadian federal government to fund nutrient research on Lake of the Woods and the work with our U.S. neighbours to improve binational water management for the Rainy-Lake of the Woods basin.  This initiative will require local commitment and participation from the City of Kenora and the Lake of the Woods Development Commission. The City has supported this international collaboration for many years and now is defining its own grassroots programs to instil a sense of pride and protection of our water resource.  To find out more about local stewardship activities around the watershed, both in Canada and the U.S., visit

The federal government’s nutrient research is one piece of a larger set of research and policy/governance needs facing the watershed, as identified by the International Joint Commission:

  • Nutrients and algal blooms
  • Aquatic invasive species
  • Surface and groundwater contaminants
  • Impacts of climate change
  • Impacts of hydrologic regulation

To find out more visit International Joint Commission or contact Kelli Saunders, International Watershed Coordinator at 807-548-8002 or

“A Healthy Lake Starts Here” Storm Drain Stenciling Project

On July 31, 2017 Kenora was part of a binational initiative to raise awareness of the Rainy-Lake of the Woods Watershed in which we live and promotion of stewardship of the water quality within it. As part of the International Watershed Coordination Program offered by the Lake of the Woods Water Sustainability Foundation, storm drains along the Kenora harbourfront had a stencil painted beside them, reading “A Healthy Lake Starts Here” and a picture of a fish or other wildlife that rely on good clean water.  Storm drains along the waterfront empty directly into the lake and so it is important to recognize that what goes down the storm drain, goes into the lake.  We need to keep harmful products like soaps from car washing, fertilizers, oils, etc. out of these drains.  Many communities in Canada and the U.S. have similar stencils or permanent markers.  Locally this same project was done in the spring of 2017 in Fort Frances and International Falls, MN, engaging 100 students and painting 120 stencils on both sides of the border.

This was a partnership project between the Lake of the Woods Water Sustainability Foundation, Lake of the Woods District Property Owners Association, the City of Kenora, Riverview Industries, and Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.

Submitted by:
Kelli Saunders, International Watershed Coordinator
Lake of the Woods Water Sustainability Foundation

Watch the project video here!

Watershed News: A Series about Water Quality on Lake of the Woods

By Kelli Saunders, International Watershed Coordinator, Lake of the Woods Water Sustainability Foundation

Water…it gives us life, it symbolizes summer, it has spiritual meaning, it calms us, it’s what defines our community. To celebrate the importance of water locally and the great efforts collectively to protect it, this space will be dedicated to water throughout the summer months – its quality, its governance, its future and how we can all help to preserve it.

Here in Kenora, we are at the downstream end of the vast Rainy-Lake of the Woods watershed – 69,750 in size, the size of New Brunswick! We share our water with Minnesota and Manitoba – it is an international treasure, providing drinking water to over three quarters of a million people. What happens upstream impacts what happens downstream and this is why we need to work together with our neighbours on research and on a plan with actions to protect our water. Over the last 15 years, the Lake of the Woods Water Sustainability Foundation has been working to put a plan in place for the lake, ensuring there’s enough science and management expertise, and uniting and coordinating actions binationally – communities, researchers and policy makers.

Seven years ago, together with our partners, we launched the International Watershed Coordination Program to connect agencies, share research, educate and inform communities around the greater watershed. This series of articles is part of that program. Over the summer, we will touch on many topics, including understanding algae, Minnesota’s plans to improve water quality for the south end of Lake of the Woods, understanding where phosphorus comes from, providing insight into the role of the International Joint Commission (IJC), and suggestions on what can we do as citizens to help protect water quality.

This series is provided as part of the International Watershed Coordination Program of the Lake of the Woods Water Sustainability Foundation.

Canada’s Science Program: Part Three

This week, I’m circling back to Canada’s science in the watershed – so far, I’ve touched on Environment and Climate Change Canada’s (ECCC) satellite and baseline monitoring initiatives.  Today, the focus is on “modelling”…essentially, trying to predict water quality conditions in the basin under various scenarios. Thanks goes out to one of the lead scientists on this, Reza Valipour, who has provided this update.

This project aims to develop an integrated model for U.S. and Canadian waters that flow into Lake of the Woods that can predict water movements and water quality. The model will build a connection between the land and water to better understand the cause and effect of algal blooms. It will determine the effectiveness of risk reduction strategies on water quality in Lake of the Woods and help predict the lake’s response to climate change.

lake model

Example of ECCC’s Lake Model (AEM3D) showing the depth-averaged temperature and water circulations across the lake on July 5, 2017

As we are all well aware, algal blooms can have adverse impacts on the water quality of Lake of the Woods and other lakes and rivers in our basin. Contributing factors causing blooms include excessive nutrients (mainly total Phosphorus and Nitrogen), changes in climate and riverine inflows to the lake.  In order to focus on the key drivers as well as to be able to propose management solutions, ECCC’s integrated model was developed – it allows them to identify the contribution of individual sources such as different types of land use (forest, wetland, agriculture, urban), septic systems and point sources (municipal/industrial) that make up the total nutrients discharging to Lake of the Woods.  The model will also allow ECCC to predict the extent and duration of algal blooms.

To date, ECCC has found that the Rainy River is the main source of nutrients to Lake of the Woods and, along with the nutrients coming in from smaller tributaries, are re-distributed across the lake through mixing between bays and basins, depending on the wind patterns and riverine discharges. Work is underway to develop the impacts of changes in nutrient inputs and climate on the lake ecosystem in different spatial segments of the Lake of the Woods. This information will contribute to the development of nutrient management options for the lake.

Key Partners working with ECCC include Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, the International Joint Commission, the Lake of the Woods Water Sustainability Foundation and the Ontario Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks.

This series is provided as part of the International Watershed Coordination Program of the Lake of the Woods Water Sustainability Foundation (

Kelli Saunders, M.Sc., is the International Watershed Coordinator with the Lake of the Woods Water Sustainability Foundation.

What is an “aquatic invasive species” and how can I help keep them out of our lake?

We tend to hear more and more concern about invasive species, but what are they and how can we help prevent their spread? An invasive species is one that is not native to a specific location (an introduced species), and that has a tendency to spread to a degree believed to cause damage to the environment, economy or human health. The Rainy-Lake of the Woods watershed is vulnerable to introductions of non-native species, aquatic ones in particular, due to its proximity to several large water bodies and systems (i.e. Great Lakes, Mississippi drainage system, Red River) and its popularity as a tourist destination. There are a wide variety of aquatic invasive species in our basin, including rusty crayfish, northern clearwater crayfish, zebra mussels (in Minnesota and under investigation in Shoal Lake), spiny water flea and rainbow smelt. These invasives impact our aquatic ecosystems by competing with native species for resources, such as food and habitat, and can destroy native fish spawning habitats. They are highly successful because they tend to not have any natural predators, they are highly adaptable, they reproduce very quickly and they thrive in disturbed systems. Various species of invertebrates have invaded our basin’s waters through pathways that include ballast water, recreational and commercial boating, the aquarium and water garden trade, live food fish, and bait bucket release.

So….what can we do as boaters, anglers, resort owners or float plane operators to help prevent these invasions?

Did you know that if you put your boat in a lake that’s infested with an aquatic invasive species, you can threaten the health of the next lake you put your boat into if you don’t take precautions? This is one of the key vectors for the spread of invasives, but there are simple steps each of us can take to minimize the impact. Whether you are a recreational boater, an avid angler/tournament participant, a float-plane operator, a waterfowl hunter or a resort/campground owner, here are some helpful tips to keep in mind…simply, remember “Clean Drain Dry”:

• Clean all visible aquatic plants from your boat, trailer and equipment when leaving a waterbody
• Inspect and clean your trolling motor as it can easily collect invasive animals and plant debris in shallow water
• For float plane operators, pump out floats into a sealable container and dispose upland
• If possible, pressure spray your boat and trailer and spray inside compartments with hot water, far from the water’s edge
• Waterfowl hunters – clean plants and mud from your boat, motor, trailer, waders/hip boots, decoy lines, anchors, pushpoles and ATV
• It is illegal to dump your bait bucket contents into any waterbody in Ontario, including on the ice. If using live bait, buy local. It is illegal to bring live bait into Ontario
• Drain your boat, ballast tanks, portable bait containers, motor, drain bilge, livewell and baitwell by removing drain plugs…upland, away from the water and before leaving the lake you were on; keep drain plugs out and water-draining devices open while transporting watercraft
• Allow your boat and equipment to dry in the sun as long as possible (5 days) before putting it into a different waterbody
• Resort and campground owners, be sure your guests have helpful information available to them – pamphlets upon check-in or signs at your access points to alert customers to best practices

For more information if you live in Ontario, go to For those in Minnesota, go to .

This series is provided as part of the International Watershed Coordination Program of the Lake of the Woods Water Sustainability Foundation.

Kelli Saunders, M.Sc., is the International Watershed Coordinator with the Lake of the Woods Water Sustainability Foundation.

Canada’s Science Program: Part Four – What Drives Algae Blooms?

This week’s article features the fourth and final instalment on the Canadian science program. In past articles, I’ve talked about algae and how it forms, but this week, I’m reporting on some of the work Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) has been doing to dig a bit deeper into the main drivers of blooms. Thanks goes out to Arthur Zastepa and Dale Van Stempvoort of ECCC for this update.

Phytoplankton form the base of the food web, converting solar energy into chemical energy (i.e. food) and generating oxygen as part of the process called photosynthesis. Under the right conditions, phytoplankton may grow out of control, causing dramatic changes in water quality and visible surface scums. Referred to generically as “harmful cyanobacterial and algal blooms,” the decaying cell material consumes oxygen in the water and creates the undesirable sights and smells we see along shorelines or in open water. Some species can produce toxins harmful to humans and wildlife and taste and odour compounds that foul drinking and recreational water.

Scientists at ECCC are conducting field surveys and experiments to understand what drives phytoplankton community structure and function in Lake of the Woods. While they are measuring water quality in general, they are also collecting information on the type of phytoplankton and other microbes found, their abundance and activity, and what bioactive compounds, including cyanotoxins, are being produced. There seems to be strong regional/local influences on the location and timing of phytoplankton proliferation. For example, Dr. Zastepa’s work is investigating a potential role of sediments in bloom initiation and progression. Preliminary results suggest that sediments can indeed serve as a source of nutrients, biomass, and toxins but the importance of this reservoir depends on regional/local influences such as bathymetry, meteorology, and lake history.

ECCC has also been looking at the role of septic systems in contributing nutrients to the lake. In order to examine this, phosphorus entering the lake from septic systems from cottages and other developments was investigated at Poplar Bay and Sioux Narrows. As a comparison, nearshore groundwater and surface water was also measured from a more urban setting on the western edge of Kenora (Keewatin). Eleven sampling trips were carried out between the fall of 2016 and the fall of 2019. ECCC took samples of groundwater and surface water at all locations, analyzing them for various indicators of water quality, including phosphorus, as well as substances that act as tracers of wastewater. The artificial sweetener acesulfame (also known as Ace-K) is a good tracer of septic wastewater because it tends to stay dissolved in water, it doesn’t break down easily, and it is present in wastewater at levels that are easily detectable.

The septic system study suggests that the impact of nutrient loading from septic systems to nearshore areas of Lake of the Woods is diminished by a wide variety of underground processes (e.g. processes that can alter or utilize phosphorus in the subsurface). Evidence of strong phosphorus contamination from septic systems in the shallow waters was not found. Preliminary results suggest that phosphorus in septic wastewater is largely removed (or immobilized) as it seeps below ground and flows toward the lake.
Sampling of shallow groundwater along the shoreline site in Keewatin indicated some high levels of phosphorus. While wastewater is not an important contributor of phosphorus at this shoreline, there are other possible sources, such as fertilizers and decaying plant matter.

Updated results of this research will be presented at the next International Rainy-Lake of the Woods Watershed Forum in March 2020.

This series is provided as part of the International Watershed Coordination Program of the Lake of the Woods Water Sustainability Foundation (

Kelli Saunders, M.Sc., is the International Watershed Coordinator with the Lake of the Woods Water Sustainability Foundation.

What Happens to the Lake When it Freezes Over?

Given the cold temperatures lately and the quick freeze-up on the lakes around us, I thought it would be interesting to look below the ice surface and find out what really happens under there all winter. For those of us who ice-fish, we know full well that the lake is still full of life, but let’s take a closer look.

During the summer, lake surface waters warm and this layer of warm, less dense water floats on top of the deeper cold waters that are more dense. This is known as lake stratification.

As fall progresses, lake surface waters cool, become more dense and sink and with help from the wind, the lake waters mix from top to bottom. This is what is called fall “turnover” and it plays a critical role in determining what life can survive over winter. As winter begins to set in, the entire lake cools to 4°C. Water reaches its maximum density at this temperature. When air temperatures drop more, the surface waters cool even further and at 0°C start to freeze. At these temperatures, water expands and become less dense, so it stays afloat as it turns into ice.

Lake turnover is critical in freshwater lakes, because it is this transformation that replenishes dissolved oxygen levels in the deepest lake waters. Once the ice forms, there is no oxygen exchange between the water and the atmosphere and the light needed for aquatic plants to produce oxygen is reduced. When the lake surface freezes over, the oxygen in the lake is what it is…whatever oxygen exists at that point in time has to last all winter long for the critters that need it. For this reason, many plants, animals and other forms of life hibernate or go dormant in winter, but a surprising number remain active in colder months. In fact, some organisms only spring to life once a lake freezes over and many others survive only by clinging to the ice’s underside. I was recently reading an article about a team of researchers who looked at 100 freshwater lakes around the world to investigate what life exists under the ice. While we think of algae as a summer phenomenon, these researchers found algae clinging to the underside of the ice in many of the lakes because this is where light is most available at this time of year. Until the ice melts in the spring, these algae and zooplankton are an important food source for newly hatched fish.

What about those fish swimming around in frigid waters? Fish can survive the freezing-over of lakes because they are cold blooded, meaning their body temperature matches their environment. Colder temperatures mean a reduction in their metabolism and a slowing down of respiration, digestion and activity level; since their food supply is reduced, this is a great example of an adaptation mechanism. Cold-blooded reptiles and amphibians that overwinter under the ice survive by hibernating in the mud at the bottom of ponds or shallow bays of lakes.

It is truly amazing that, in the cold and the extreme darkness of a frozen-over lake, life can continue below the surface where nature adapts and provides enough resources to get through to the next spring.

This series is provided as part of the International Watershed Coordination Program of the Lake of the Woods Water Sustainability Foundation (

Kelli Saunders, M.Sc., is the International Watershed Coordinator with the Lake of the Woods Water Sustainability Foundation.

What would you let come between you and your lake?

For many, the answer to this is “nothing” because there is often a very deep connection to water for those who have waterfront property. But, the question is really about what you should allow to come between you and your lake – literally.

I was lucky enough to spend this last week out on Lake of the Woods in a favourite cabin, surrounded by trees, wildlife and, of course…water. I instantly felt a sense of calm and relaxation when I got there and as each day passed, a greater sense of respect and gratitude for this lake and its surroundings. For the most part, as I kayaked and canoed along the shoreline, I noticed many properties have kept a buffer of vegetation at the shoreline. They’ve kept things wild by letting the grass grow, letting the trees and shrubs stabilize their shoreline, minimizing the artificial structures and reducing disturbance. But, our lakes need everyone to do this, collectively, in order to have the biggest impact. Those who own waterfront property really do have a unique responsibility.

The zone from the water’s edge out to a depth of 2m is the most productive part of a lake and what happens upland of the shoreline can play a significant role in the health of that zone. One of the best lines of defence for property owners to consider are “buffers”, which are zones of natural vegetation at the shoreline that can help to keep the lake healthy. There are many benefits to maintaining a healthy buffer. Native plant buffers provide habitat for wildlife, including much needed pollinators, and supply shade for fish in that nearshore zone. The roots of trees and shrubs bind the soil and provide protection from erosion; if removed, the soil can easily be washed away with wave action and with that comes excess nutrients entering the lake. Buffers act as a sponge, soaking up nutrients in the runoff from upland areas – the roots utilizing the nutrients before they hit the water. Reducing nutrients in the first place can be done by eliminating the use of fertilizers and, if you do have areas where you cut the grass, ensure the clippings don’t end up in the lake. There are a few other great options to reduce the amount of runoff entering the lake, including installing rain barrels, minimizing pavement or other hard surfaces, making your path to the lake meandering instead of straight and adding habitat islands (islands of trees and shrubs if you have a landscaped yard).

Research has shown that increased water clarity/quality can positively impact property value. While this shouldn’t be the sole reason for contributing to the health of the lake, it can be an important one. Being able to swim and fish and utilize the water from the lake are very good reasons for every shoreline property owner to be a good water steward and respect the connection between what they do on the land and how the water will respond to those decisions.

This series is provided as part of the International Watershed Coordination Program of the Lake of the Woods Water Sustainability Foundation (

Kelli Saunders, M.Sc., is the International Watershed Coordinator with the Lake of the Woods Water Sustainability Foundation

Spring Turnover – Mixing it Up!

Last November, I talked about “fall turnover”, a phenomenon that happens on our lakes here in northwestern Ontario when things cool off and the temperature and density of water changes, resulting in the mixing of top and bottom water layers that have developed over the summer (thermal stratification). As soon as the ice goes out, “spring turnover” takes place, once again mixing the waters of the lake from top to bottom.

During the winter, ice cover on a lake eliminates the impact wind has on the water’s surface. This essentially puts a lid on the chances for any further oxygen to be mixed into the water, which is critical for living organisms. So, all winter, organisms have a set amount of oxygen to survive on under the ice. Spring turnover is a welcome relief! Once the ice is gone, wind can blow across the water surface again and start to reoxygenate the lake. After ice out, the water will reach a point where the temperature (and, therefore density) is the exact same throughout the entire lake. Because of this, a persistent wind can mix oxygen into the whole lake – right down to the bottom and this is a crucial mechanism for replenishing dissolved oxygen levels in the lake. When the lakes are a uniform temperature and density, it takes relatively little wind energy to mix water deep into the lake. As new life emerges in our lakes in the spring, there is an increased need for oxygen and this process really does provide what is needed to support that new life and rejuvenate the organisms that survived over winter.

As the season progresses and surface waters warm, thermal stratification sets in with warm, less dense waters floating on top of the deep cold waters, with little mixing between the layers. Whatever dissolved oxygen there is in the deepest parts of the lake is all that is available until lake turnover once again, in the fall. Nature is truly amazing.

This series is provided as part of the International Watershed Coordination Program of the Lake of the Woods Water Sustainability Foundation (

Kelli Saunders, M.Sc., is the International Watershed Coordinator with the Lake of the Woods Water Sustainability Foundation.

Lake Associations – Engines for Action!

If you have been a member of a lake association, you likely know that they can be extremely productive, energetic, action-driven organizations. In our shared waters, we are fortunate to have over 30 lake associations. While these associations may originate due to concerns for taxes, infrastructure or governance, the vast majority form out of a passion to help to protect local water resources. Often, they are the on-the-ground water quality samplers, the folks who organize shoreline cleanups, the ones who bring resources and messages from resource agencies who may be unable to have a strong presence in more remote parts of a watershed. Every year, I have the honour of organizing a binational Lake Association Network event where I have met the people who are the heart and soul of these groups from Ontario, Minnesota and Manitoba. They are passionate about what they do and they fill a vital role in ecosystem health and protection. In this article, I’d like to showcase some of the good work that lake associations are doing all around us, most of the time as volunteers!

Over the years locally, some of the smaller associations like Laclu Campers, Whiteshell Cottagers, Ingolf Campers, Malachi Campers, Black Sturgeon Lakes and Minaki Conservancy have pooled their resources to monitor water levels, initiate septic re-inspections, actively participate in forestry planning and host educational workshops on what landowners can do to minimize their impact on the environment. And then there is the large, well-known Lake of the Woods District Stewardship Association, active for over 50 years. Invasive species monitoring, the tree seedling program, the LakeSmart dock to dock stewardship program and their popular metal waste collection day are all spearheaded by this association in an effort to protect water resources and spread information on stewardship to their members, who are in both Canada and the U.S.

In Minnesota, the land of 10,000 lakes, associations abound. A few examples of our neighbours’ success stories include the boat inspection and decontamination efforts of the Vermilion Lake Association’s Aquatic Invasive Species Program – with 17 public and 20+ private accesses onto this lake, the Association works with resort owners, their local Soil and Water Conservation District and the public to educate on prevention and provide inspection and decontamination expertise. Monitoring and preventing the spread of aquatic invasive species has become a major focus for many of Minnesota’s lake associations. Monitoring for water quality through citizen science programs and research partnerships plays a significant role in bolstering the efforts of resource agencies. The White Iron Chain of Lakes Association near Ely, MN, for example, provided the manpower to do water quality monitoring over a ten-year period that supported a substantial research project. Gunflint Lake, Turtle Lake, Jessie Lake, Kabetogama, Burntside and many more all have active, involved volunteers who sample water, run events, plant buffers, clean up shorelines, focus on invasive species prevention and much more.

We owe a great deal of thanks to all of these lake associations and their members for the effort they put in year after year to recruit volunteers, seek funding to run programs, sit on committees to help make a difference, provide information to the public that may be hard to come by otherwise and generally just do good work.

This series is provided as part of the International Watershed Coordination Program of the Lake of the Woods Water Sustainability Foundation (

Kelli Saunders, M.Sc., is the International Watershed Coordinator with the Lake of the Woods Water Sustainability Foundation