Although this research is still in progress, below are some of the things we have learned along the way.  Note that these results are preliminary and may change as we continue to engage with our research participants and community members over the next few months.  This study will conclude in April 2021.

On September 16, 2020, we presented a webinar for the Lake Futures Webinar Series.  This webinar presented a high-level summary of all aspects of this research.  Watch the webinar and Q&A here, or download the slides here.  A one-page summary of the webinar is also available here.

Exploratory case study: Muskoka River Watershed

We reviewed the monitoring and reporting programs of the Muskoka Watershed Council to strengthen monitoring and assess how to incorporate climate change into the Report Card program (i.e., to educate community members and encourage behavioural changes). 


One result of this study was the conclusion that too many monitoring indicators are looked at inconsistently over the years, preventing coherent trends from being observed by those who read only the Report Cards.  We tested a process for deciding what to measure.  In this Criteria-Based Ranking process, managers and scientists scored a set of monitoring indicators according to seven criteria that assessed whether indicators were usable (in reporting), were quantifiable, can be managed, represented threats, and were a personal priority. 


Using this process resulted in a different subset indicators than the usual approach did, demonstrating that the use of a standard process with context-specific criteria can change the direction of monitoring.  Note: this process is useful for characterization and ongoing monitoring; however it may or may not be a good approach for decision-specific monitoring (yet untested) because this process focuses on diverse perspectives and priorities, not on creating a specific story to inform a specific question  Read the (open access) journal publication about this method here.

The 2018 Watershed Report Card – the Council's first Report Card since this study was completed – demonstrates many improvements in communication:

  • Fewer indicators are reported upon: four indicators of health (total phosphorus, calcium, benthic macroinvertebrates and interior forest cover) and four indicators that measure potential threats (climate change, species at risk, invasive species and (habitat) fragmentation).

  • Cumulative impacts are discussed with the community.

  • Infographics are used in addition to multimedia, interactive story maps.

  • Marketing of the Report Card is improved.  Prior to the release of the Report Card, a series of blog posts were shared on Muskoka Watershed Council's website to explain monitoring goals, the new direction and format of the Report Cards, and to educate the community on why the specific indicators matter.

  • The Council also held booths at events to reach out to the community and has added hard copies of the infographic
    Report Cards to various venues around the Watershed (e.g., a new Watershed Wonders exhibit at the Muskoka Discovery Centre).


Monitoring review

We reviewed nine water monitoring programs and frameworks identified by interviewees and experts we consulted with.  These programs were scored on 22 criteria.  Most of these programs were excellent at using Western science, incorporating multiple durations of data, and engaging with their identified partners/stakeholders.  However, few incorporated multiple reporting formats (i.e., not just scientific journals or complicated study reports), recognized Indigenous knowlendge, had clearly and transparently defined roles for monitoring and management organizations, or made use of community-based monitoring.​  Recommendations were as follows:

  1. Recognize different knowledge approaches (especially Indigenous)

  2. Use multiple reporting formats

  3. Clarify monitoring and management roles

  4. Use water quantity, quality, and biomonitoring together (where relevant)

  5. Link monitoring to management and decision making


Read the publication here.

Key informant interviews

Summary coming soon!

Stakeholder engagement workshop

As part of our participant observation, we led a workshop on May 26, 2019 ahead of the National Conference of the Canadian Water Resources Association.  The workshop was titled Enhancing Engagement in Canadian Water Management: Involvement and Collaboration with a Broad Range of Stakeholders and Authorities.  We had 19 participants, in addition to the two facilitators and four guest speakers, representing the private sector, government agencies, non-governmental organizations and academia from local, regional, national and international levels. No Indigenous persons were in attendance.

In this workshop, participants heard case studies through four panel presentation (re: who to engage and how), participated in a stakeholder mapping exercise and were introduced to a backcasting exercise called the Bridge Future State Technique.  Despite the collective experience of the practitioners, government personnel and researchers who attended the workshop, none of the attendees had ever undertaken a formal stakeholder mapping and analysis exercise.  Main lessons from this workshop included:

  • Diverse opinions are important for meaningful engagement/participation (specifically in water governance)

  • Stakeholder expectations should be set at the start

  • Engage by asking "How do you think we should achieve the outcome you want?" (rather than "how can we work with you for the outcome we want?")

We had further discussion regarding how our mental models define the roles, possibilities and limitations of those we engage with. For example, a manager or researcher may expect a given group of stakeholders would contribute in a certain way; however, that manager’s perception of that stakeholder group does not necessarily describe the true limitation of those stakeholders’ contributions. Recognizing this, engaging with stakeholders early on to define their roles can facilitate more realistic and meaningful engagement. The importance of early, meaningful engagement increases the more distinct each person or group’s perspectives, needs and/or function are from our own. 

One speaker suggested that having strong support from municipalities is essential to non-governmental organizations that hope to make a difference. Encouraging people to act may require out-of-the-box thinking.

Public engagement via the arts

We partnered with Great Art for Great Lakes to engage with about a thousand members of Canadian and Indigenous communities in the general study area to create Lake Erie-themed artworks that would be permanently installed in their communities.  Participants were given a survey to complete at each workshop.

Participants' top three priorities regarding the river and the lake were recreation, community and culture, and wildlife and functional ecosystems.  When asked why participants chose to participate in the workshops, they demonstrated an interest in engaging in relatable watershed-related activities, stating they were interested in learning or experiencing something new (top reason), they were looking for ways to participate in the community, and that they wanted to do their part or "do good." 


Nearly all participants suggested everyone - including community members (i.e., themselves) - have a role to play in managing a healthy watershed.  Participants also felt that the arts were an effective way to engage with the community, stressing the importance of the educational component and that multiple cultures and age groups (i.e., generations of the same family) could participate and understand the issues.  While there was wide recognition the lake and river have both improved since decades ago, the general consensus was that there is clear room for improvement.

Interestingly, while the vast majority of participants wrote various experiences (e.g., recreation, scenery) as their priorities, they identified pollution as the top problem to address (note: many of these responses referred to plastics, likely due to one of the workshop series dedicated to plastics pollution).  Algae, high water levels, and invasive species were also listed.   So, while there are more qualitative aspects of the watershed people value immensely, they recognize pressing quantitative problems that need to be addressed.  A handful of participants identified a lack of communication and conversation with the public (by water managers), and lack of public education, as problems in the watershed.

Read the summary of public feedback via Great Art for Great Lakes here.

In addition to our partnership with Great Art for Great Lakes, we partnered with Music for the Spirit & Indigenous Visual Arts to specifically engage with Indigenous youth.  We co-created a virtual art exhibit to share their perspectives with local water managers.  From their stories, a set of principles and values emerged that were then integrated with values raised during key informant (expert/practitioner) interviews. 

Guiding monitoring and management using a community-generated set of values is one approach for ensuring the community's priorities are being met without having to constantly re-engage with everyone.  Below is a summary of the principles and values that resulted from this work:

  1. Water essential and finite

  2. Impacts are unequally distributed

  3. What we put into the watershed returns to us in one form or another

  4. We will manage as grateful stewards

  5. People are inextricably embedded within (not external to) ecological issues

  6. Openly acknowledge histories and strive to reconcile

  7. Open, transparent communication and data sharing

  8. Iterative, adaptive processes do not fail; they improve 

  9. Monitoring can empower management when designed for this purpose

  10. Partnerships and collaboration are the foundation of program implementation

In addition, there is a unique connection between women and water, most notable in Indigenous cultures but also in cultures across the globe.  We should celebrate this and empower female champions of the community.  Read the summary report from Grand Expressions here.

End-user workshop: A Grand-Erie Estuary monitoring framework

On Monday October 5, 2020, potential end users of the research reviewed and provided input for the redesign of the first draft of the proposed framework. The 16 participants represented 10 organizations, including national and provincial government, Conservation Authorities, local non-profits and local businesses focused on environmental science and Indigenous communities.  We held three breakout group discussions in which participants responded to the following questions:

  • Breakout Discussion A: What changes or additions to this framework would you recommend? How would you change the goals/purpose?

  • Breakout Discussion B: How would you suggest applying/including Western knowledge alongside Indigenous cultural knowledge?

  • Breakout Discussion C: Can you envision your organization becoming involved in implementing this framework? Why or why not? In an ideal world, what role would your organization play in implementing this framework?

In the first discussion, participants suggested the current framework would be effective when managing conservation within an estuary area. However, participants recommended several improvements to increase the framework’s overall impact. Participants specified the following aspects should be included in the framework: early engagement with essential First Nations groups; complete program funding; co-solution generation; amalgamation of western data with traditional ecological knowledge; and dedicated data use and storage.

In the second discussion, participants were overwhelmingly supportive of the idea that a collaborative initiative for estuary management must include both Western knowledge and Indigenous knowledge.  Amalgamating both knowledge approaches is a great challenge, but one that was recognized as worthwhile due to the great depth of knowledge that would potentially be developed.  Participants also stressed that relationship building should be an initial goal in itself, rather than building a working relationship for the purpose of specific monitoring/management goals.  Creating a relationship built on mutual respect and understanding, without any other purpose, was said to be the best way to ensure effective collaborations moving forward.

In the third discussion, participants voiced the following reservations about joining this framework: problematic to alter the framework for ongoing projects; redundancies within the framework and existing monitoring agencies; we need an understanding of commitments before framework implementation; framework may be more effective for relationship building at a community level; amd the framework would need to have a champion (or champions) to be effective.

We also carried a final closing discussion as a collective group, for which the participants were initially asked the following questions: Are there any other aspects of this framework you would like to discuss? Do you have any takeaways, lessons learned (i.e., would you apply anything at your organization) or final thoughts?  There were not many other thoughts initially, so the researcher (Elaine) posed several questions/requests for recommendations on topics that had come up during earlier discussions.  Community engagement (Indigenous and Canadian communities) was a main topic of discussion throughout the workshop and in the closing discussion. 


The most notable conversation in the closing discussion was regarding the point that this framework does not consider recent changes to provincial legislation (i.e., Conservation Authorities Act and others in the recent omnibus bill). This was the most concerning aspect of the workshop’s discussion, not so much because of implications for this framework, but more so because of the broader societal implications of these changes – that no one is responsible for ensuring a healthy environment for the species and communities of Ontario.  Concerns around increasing responsibilities falling onto already-stretched municipalities came full circle into a discussion on whether community engagement - or, possibly, community leadership - would be the answer to this problem, though would be followed by challenges of long-term funding.

Finally, one participant suggested this exercise is timely, mostly due to Lake Erie’s nutrient issue being predominantly influenced by the Grand River. So, despite the many considerations brought forward in this workshop, the task of exploring an improved framework for monitoring should continue to be pursued.

Indicators workshop: How do we measure cumulative effects of nutrients  in the estuary?

A final cumulative effects workshop will be held in November 2020 to determine what indicators may be used to evaluate cumulative impacts of nutrients in the study area.

Final takeaway: How can I engage community members in water monitoring and management?

1. Establish underlying principles and values

One approach for engaging with community members infrequently (this is a resource-intensive undertaking), but meaningfully, is to implement strategies for collecting community member values, recommendations, and watershed priorities (including problems they identify and solutions they propose).  The feedback provided by community members can then be used to generate a list of principles and values that can steer priority-setting and should be considered in any management decision and the design of any projects or programs moving forward. On a regional scale, management agencies (e.g., municipalities) and the private sector may take this a step further by converting their principles and values into a formal water resource charter for local community members.  Either of these approaches would ensure diverse perspectives are considered in day-to-day activities without the need for constant engagement.


2. Recognize different forms of knowledge and communication

Both the Muskoka example and the Grand Expressions project illustrate different approaches for bringing forward diverse perspectives – using criteria to determine priorities, stakeholder identification, mapping, and/or characterization, and using universal forms of expression to celebrate and collect different lines of evidence. Citizen “science” initiatives – i.e., community monitoring, surveying, and crowdsourcing observations (e.g., using we-based or smartphone apps like iNaturalist and EDDMapS) – may be useful and have the potential to fill capacity gaps. These initiatives engage community members in problem identification and can form the basis for co-created or community-led solutions.  Other forms of knowledge include memories, and cultural teachings, which emerge through interviews, focus groups, and co-created initiatives like Grand Expressions.

3. Co-create shared spaces

Inclusivity involves inviting previously disengaged persons/groups into a space that was not designed for them.  Instead, shared spaces imply the creation or redesign of an entirely different social environment that is equitable to all parties involved.  Challenges of this approach include the immense flexibility and the sharing of power and ownership that are required.  In this approach, relationships should be prioritized over desired outcomes to allow the co-creative process to take place.