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Friends of Muskoka Waves Newsletter


Since the Globe & Mail article on Saturday, August 17 (page 16) and our subsequent “Special Edition” Waves Newsletter about the incident, there has been an outcry of anger about the pollution spills in Wallace Bay. As a result, we thought we would follow up with this additional information about water testing and highlight the need for all septic systems to be monitored and remedied should they be found to be faulty. 
Reports of repeated sewage and septic related violations at the JW Marriott Resort has drawn attention to water quality issues and sustainable development planning throughout Muskoka.


(Press  to return to this index)


The only governing body that tests the water quality in our lakes is the District of Muskoka. Neither the Township nor the Province does lake water quality testing, with the exception of our few public beaches. 

The District’s program is designed to establish a long-term record of key water quality parameters so that trends in water quality and overall lake system health can be identified and appropriate management decisions can be made to protect
Muskoka’s recreational lake water quality. It monitors 196 sites across the District but does not monitor some high usage areas such as Wallace Bay near the Marriott Resort, or Windermere. More information is available in the District’s 2018 report on water quality.
However, in support of its original founding principles to protect the environment, the Muskoka Lakes Association (MLA) conducts water quality testing throughout Muskoka Lakes, with the help of ‘a small army of volunteers’. Details of the MLA’s water quality monitoring work are on their website. They explain that:

“Lake health is impacted on a daily basis by the weather, the natural evolution of a lake, climate change, development, aging or faulty septic systems and failure to protect the wetlands. Pollution is also caused by urban run-off, fertilizers, golf courses, and agriculture. Most of these problems are caused by inadequate shoreline protectors such as natural vegetative buffers, lack of appropriate filtering systems and the myth that the lakes are able to look after themselves.” 


Friends of Muskoka President, Laurie Thomson, is the MLA’s lead water quality tester for Wallace Bay on Lake Rosseau, where the JW Marriott Resort and Spa is located. In our Waves - Special Issue on August 17th, we described the sewage leaks at the Marriott since July 2015 and the recent Work Order issued against it by the Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks.

The test results in the Minett area to date this summer show elevated E.coli counts. E. coli refers to a wide range of bacteria that can cause various diseases, including pneumonia, urinary tract infections, and diarrhea. Many strains of E. coli are harmless to humans. Some symptoms of E. coli infection include nausea, vomiting, and fever.

The site near the wetland where the Marriott’s effluent ultimately discharges has measured between 18 and 79 CFU/100ml in tests conducted to date this summer, with the highest reading just this past week. (A CFU is a colony-forming unit, or measure of E. coli concentration.) By comparison, tests of water near Fairylands Island on Lake Rosseau, about 2 km from Wallace Bay, have only shown 1 incidence in the past 10 years of E.coli above 0 CFU/100ml (it was 3 CFU/100ml). 
The Provincial threshold for shutting down beaches is 200 CFU/100ml, raised last summer from 100 CFU/100ml to be consistent with the Canadian standard. While E.coli occurs naturally from animals and birds in the water, rarely would you see E.coli levels as high as this summer’s readings in Wallace Bay in the natural setting. These levels are indicative of human influence. The drinking water limit is 1 CFU/100ml, and while waterfront residents draw their water from the lakes, most have filter systems and UV lights that kill harmful bacteria, including E.coli.

Although the water at the J.W. Marriott has been deemed safe for recreational use, Friends of Muskoka and the Muskoka Lakes Association will continue to monitor this area that has relatively high E.coli readings. 


As reported in this special bulletin from the District, they and the Township are in regular communication with the Ministry regarding the sewage leaks at the Marriott, and have requested the Ministry “remain vigilant to ensure compliance is fully addressed” by the Marriott’s owner and operator. Private communal septic systems of a certain size, such as at the Marriott, automatically fall under Provincial jurisdiction, which is why Muskoka has to work through the Province. 

Last Friday, August 23rd, Friends of Muskoka and the MLA attended the District’s Engineering and Public Works (EPW) Committee meeting where the Marriott’s sewage spills were discussed at length. The Committee includes the following individuals:

Chair Phil Harding (TML Mayor)

Councillor Paul Wiancko (Georgian Bay)

Councillor Heidi Lorenz (Gravenhurst)

Councillor Bob Lacroix (Lake of Bays)

Councillor Brian Thompson (Huntsville)

District Chair John Klinck

We support the following suggestions that were made at this meeting: 

  • the District should find some mechanism to ensure the Province is adequately monitoring private communal septic systems under its jurisdiction such as at the Marriott; and 
  • the District and Township should receive better and more frequent reporting on these sewage systems, which might be accomplished through developer responsibility agreements, since the District can not compel the Province to cooperate. 

As the Provincial Order outlines, problems with the Marriott’s sewage treatment system have been occurring over a number of years. This is unacceptable to our community.

Friends of Muskoka is committed to working with the District and Township to put policies and programs in place to ensure septic systems on all properties operate to the highest environmental standards and are monitored on an ongoing basis. 


We all need to do our part in protecting our lakes. We support Mayor Phil Harding’s statements during the election in favour of mandatory septic system inspections. In his inaugural address, Mayor Harding remarked, “I’ve said many times this Fall, but it’s worth repeating, we need to consider the implementation of mandatory septic inspections to protect our environment.” 

Since then, Mayor Harding has proposed to us a new requirement that septic systems must be inspected and passed every 5 years. Failing to pass a septic inspection will add an annual fine to a property owner’s tax bill until proof of compliance is received by the Township. We support this approach, and also support a fine that’s large enough to give property owners the incentive to remediate their septic system as soon as possible.


At the EPW meeting our elected officials at the District and Township demonstrated that they are very concerned about the Marriott’s sewage spills and the Province’s lack of reporting of the issues to them. Although there was chatter and rumours about Wallace Bay, and the Marriott’s sewage system in particular, the District and Township did not know about the spills until the Provincial Ministry called earlier this month to find out who owned the Marriott so they could serve the Infraction Order! 
Private septic installations we have at all our cottages require all sorts of checks and balances and final approvals. The design is stamped as meeting the requirements and approval is required before use. But private communal systems under the Province’s jurisdiction, like the Marriott and many other resorts and campgrounds, seem to get around these rules, and that is wrong. The final approval required before they are put into operation is often not undertaken and there are no regular inspections, which is likely why this problem occurred and continued for so many years. 
Septic systems and sewage treatment facilities fail, even state of the art ones. Any discharge of effluent is detrimental to the health of our lakes, whether or not it is at a level to close a beach. 
Things have to change and we need to support the Township and the District having more control -- at a minimum, they should be advised by the Province immediately when there is a problem with a private communal septic system on our lakes. Absent adequate control or oversight, or at a minimum sufficient comfort that the Province is doing its job in overseeing the systems under its jurisdiction, we should not approve more of these private communal sewage facilities on our lakes. 
While other municipalities in Ontario may not depend on the health of their lakes for their economic success, Muskoka does. The problem at the Marriott is yet another example of why we need to build cautiously in Muskoka. How much is too much?

Saturday’s Globe & Mail edition on page A16 of the paper:
Operators Of Muskoka Resort Ignored Concerns About Sewage Treatment Problems by TU THANH HA

(reproduced for your review here)


Friends of Muskoka are a group of dedicated volunteers working to protect and to preserve the natural environment and unique character of Muskoka by promoting responsible use and development of its land and lakes. Friends of Muskoka believe that the environment IS the economy in Muskoka since millions of people come to Muskoka and invest here because of its clean water and natural, treed shorelines. Our lakes, forests and rivers are a resource that can drive Muskoka’s economy for decades to come if we put the environment first. To this end, Friends of Muskoka is trying to stop residential subdivisions on the waterfront in Muskoka and will work to enshrine sustainable development in the Municipal and District Official Plans.


You can help Friends of Muskoka to protect and to preserve the natural environment and unique character of Muskoka by promoting responsible use and development of its land and lakes.


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