Shorelines 'not a backyard swimming pool,' lakefront landowners reminded

Watersheds Canada is urging landowners to protect and rehabilitate their shorelines to protect Ontario's lakes and rivers. The group says it's important to take action now while development in cottage country is booming.

Watersheds Canada says lakes at risk from development boom in cottage country

Watersheds Canada recommends landowners keep 75 per cent of their shorelines natural to support wildlife. (Robyn Miller/CBC)

Janet Taylor admits that when she built her cottage on White Lake in the mid-1990s, she didn't know anything about shoreline protection.

"We were pretty ignorant. We were just looking for a lakefront property. We really didn't understand lakes and shorelines or any of that sort of thing," Taylor said.

The retired public servant from Ottawa said she started paying attention in 2013 when the lake experienced a significant blue-green algae bloom.

She got in touch with Watersheds Canada, a charitable organization based in Perth, Ont., to come and set up learning opportunities about shoreline protection for landowners around the lake. 

Janet Taylor has been working with Watersheds Canada to educate property owners about the importance of natural shorelines. She built a cottage on White Lake in the mid 1990s, and said at the time, she didn't know anything about shorelines. (Robyn Miller/CBC)

Taylor said the education came in handy, particularly because the regulations surrounding shoreline development can differ significantly depending on location.

'Planning for our Shorelands'

Taylor said over the years, some landowners have restored their shorelines to a more natural state, but with more and more new development, the message can sometimes get lost.

Watersheds Canada's executive director Barbara King said her organization is now working on a project called Planning for our Shorelands, which aims to provide municipalities across Ontario with a dedicated online resource to help wade through the sometimes muddy waters of shoreland development. 

"Our lakes are not a backyard swimming pool. It's a living ecosystem," King said.

This is an example of a natural shoreline on White Lake with lots of trees, fallen debris and vegetation. (Robyn Miller/CBC)

Ontario has a broad policy statement for land use planning, but King said the responsibility for conserving shorelands is shared among a number of stakeholders including municipalities, planners and lake associations, which makes protecting a body of water like White Lake, for example, a challenge.

White Lake is located about 60 kilometres west of Ottawa and spans two municipalities, two counties and two Ministry of Natural Resources districts.

A lot of people are coming up from the city and urban areas that may not really understand the complexities of what it means to live on our lakes.- Barbara King, Watersheds Canada

"In Quebec, they do have some guidelines and regulations at the provincial level that each municipality has to enact and that makes things a little bit easier for the municipalities," King said. 

Jolanta Kowalski, a spokesperson with the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF), said in an email to CBC that the department doesn't control shoreland development like a municipality, but there is a permitting process. 

"Permits help ensure that activities include considerations for the environment, other users and neighbouring landowners," Kowalski wrote. 

As lake development picks up, natural shorelines may be at risk

2 years ago
Duration 1:37
Barbara King, executive director of Watersheds Canada, says the organization is encouraging cottage-owners to keep most of their shoreline in its natural state to protect water quality and wildlife habitats.

Cottage country booming

King said it's not enough. She said it's time for a best practices resource, especially since the COVID-19 pandemic has driven up demand for waterfront properties as more people work from home and turn their cottages into permanent residences.

"It's happening very quickly. A lot of people are coming up from the city and urban areas that may not really understand the complexities of what it means to live on our lakes," King said.

King said many landowners don't understand the importance of maintaining natural shorelines to water quality and the wellbeing of aquatic and land-based wildlife.

Barbara King, executive director of Watersheds Canada, said her organization is working to provide municipalities and other stakeholders an online resource of best practices for shoreline development. (Robyn Miller/CBC)

Andy Cockburn, president of the Lanark-Leeds Home Builders Association, said its members are busier than ever, but  strive to follow the rules.

"As long as there is a good relationship between the conservation authority and the municipality that's involved, then things will go as well as due diligence can go," Cockburn said.

Mark Snider, a land use planner in Ontario for 30 years, said the big problem isn't necessarily with new development, but redevelopment of smaller lots that aren't suitable for the kind of upgrades landowners want to make. 

"It's creating challenges for decision makers and putting great strain on the lakes in terms of things like nutrient loading to the water, and it's compromising water quality," Snider said.