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Gartner Lee Water Quality Study 2002 - 2004

Gartner Lee, Kearney Watershed Study (2002 - 2004)  (Contact KWEF for full report).   recommendations summary: November, 2005.  < click here

Executive Summary

    The Town of Kearney occupies the headwaters of the Magnetawan River near the western boundary of Algonquin Provincial Park. The terrain varies from extensive deposits of glaciolacustrine sand and gravel or wetland areas in flat terrain along the Magnetawan River Valley; to rugged uplands of Precambrian Shield granites and gneisses.
    The extensive forest cover of the region attracted and sustained a large lumbering industry (harvest, sawmills, charcoal production and associated settlement) in the earlier parts of the 20* century. Timber harvest is still important, but water-based recreation and tourism have also emerged as important economic factors and are poised to grow substantially as transportation to the area improves and waterfront homes become more costly in areas closer to Southern Ontario. Numerous resorts and hundreds of seasonal homes support thousands of tourists, attracted by recreational waters in the summer and snowmobile trails in the winter. The Town serves as an access point for ecotourism in Algonquin Park. Permanent residents are being attracted to the lakes surrounding the immediate Town site. Graphite Lake, near the eastern town boundary, supports an economic (but currently non-producing) graphite mine and other mineral potential exists.

    The thin glacial overburden of the area makes ground and surface waters susceptible to contamination and may limit settlement capability, based on servicing of individual lots by septic systems. The age of the settlement, surficial sands and small lot sizes in the Town of Kearney and in older settled areas on the lakes create the potential for septic systems to interact with surface water and with shallow wells and increase the potential for spills of hazardous materials to contaminate wells or surface water systems.

    At the same time, public health and the importance of the recreational economy means that water quality must be maintained and its safety must be demonstrated. The recreational lake community is increasingly involved with lake management and must be reassured that their investment is being protected, both from their own activities (i.e., septic systems) and other land uses in the watershed (i.e., mining, aggregate extraction, agriculture and sewage disposal). The location of the Town of Kearney at the headwaters of the Magnetawan River means that watershed protection activities that are initiated here will benefit the entire downstream watershed.

    The Town of Kearney recognizes the need for a proactive approach to water management in order to protect the quality of the surface and groundwater resources that are so important to its present health and future recreational economy.

    In May of 2002 Gartner Lee Limited (GLL) was retained by the Corporation of the Town of Kearney to undertake The Kearney Watershed Study. A strategy was developed to assess the state of Kearney's surface and groundwater resources and identify constraints to, and opportunities for, continued economic growth while maintaining the environmental quality at the headwaters of the Magnetawan River. A phased work plan of surface water quality surveys, background information synthesis, a terrain analysis, septic inspections, groundwater surveys and analysis, public meetings and reporting was initiated, so that
the results of each phase could guide implementation of the next phase. This approach resulted in a cost-effective assessment and the collection of data which most clearly reveals watershed sensitivities.

    This report presents an assessment of the current status of surface and groundwater, of threats to and sensitivities of the resource, and provides recommendations to maintain its protection in the long term.

Surface Water

The quality of the surface waters in the Upper Magnetawan River watershed in and around the Town of Kearney is very good overall. The only nutrient parameter to exceed the PWQOs was phosphorus and only at one site. The acidity of the water (pH) was consistently below the range of the Provincial Guideline, however this is not unusual for streams on the Precambrian Shield in the spring. The acid sensitivity of waters in Kearney was also shown by low values of alkalinity (a measure of the acid buffering capacity) and conductivity (a measure of mineral content) in the waters. The waters are naturally enriched with aluminum and zinc, to levels above the PWQOs even at the reference site towards the top of the watershed (SW1).

The surface waters showed all of the characteristics of unaltered, nutrient poor headwaters typical of slightly acidic Precambrian Shield waters, with the following exceptions:

The surface water bacteria study showed the presence of naturally occurring bacteria. Although some of the highest total coliform levels were found further up in the watershed away from any substantial development, areas subject to the influence of drainage from nearby buildings, or from agricultural runoff, had elevated levels of E. coli and fecal streptococcus suggesting human influence.

Surface water quality is sensitive to contamination from development (i.e., septic systems) and land use practices in the watershed. Continued population growth and intensification of development pressure (i.e., from larger resorts) should be carefully assessed against the sensitivity of the ground and surface water systems to support septic system development and the feasibility of communal treatment facilities assessed.


A series of recommendations were made to ensure long term protection and management of surface water quality in the Town of Kearney.

  1. We recommend that the Town of Kearney encourage the requisite regulatory agencies (MOE, MNR, DFO) or undertake additional studies themselves to identify any other discharges of acidic runoff from the International Graphite Site to the Magnetawan River, and investigate their significance and, if necessary, remedial options.

  2. We recommend that the Town of Kearney continue to monitor the SW2 tributary from the International Graphite Site for pH, conductivity, trace metals and sulphate, once per year, to determine if conditions change and to assess the nature of any threat to surface waters.
    We recommend that the Town of Kearney establish long-term monitoring sites to track changes on bacterial concentrations in the watershed at SW9, SW10 and SW25. These sites should be monitored four to six times each year, between May and September.

  3. We recommend that the Town of Kearney confirm the status of septage spreading activities in the Magnetawan River watershed and work with the regulatory agencies to develop Best Management Practices to ensure that these activities do not threaten surface water quality.

  4. We recommend that the Town of Kearney implement 11 sites for long term monitoring of total phosphorus and dissolved organic carbon to provide an ongoing assessment of the surface water quality in the Kearney area (Table 17). Surveys should be conducted during the period of spring overturn each year, as was done in this survey. A survey of metal concentrations at the same sites at five-year intervals would provide adequate detail of long term trends in the Kearney area.

  5. The Town of Kearney should develop and implement environmentally sound development control approaches to minimize the potential for shoreline development to alter water quality, aquatic habitat and the social environment of their lakes. These should include a minimum 200' lot frontage, (higher on islands, narrow bays or peninsulas), a 30 m setback for septic systems and the building envelope and a maximum disturbance of the natural shoreline for human use that should not exceed 25% of the frontage on any given lot. The draft "Lake System Health" program of the District Municipality of Muskoka, is recommended for guidance in this matter.

  6. The Town of Kearney should initiate discussions with lake users and staff to develop planning controls that minimize the visual encroachment of shoreline development on the lake social environment. These can include by-laws regulating building size, boathouses, redevelopment, second tier development etc. The recently implemented "Waterfront Density By-law" of the Township of Muskoka Lakes, is recommended for consideration in this regard.

  7. The Town of Kearney should conduct a trophic status sensitivity modeling exercise on its most important recreational lakes. This exercise should be used, in conjunction with the results of monitoring programs, to assess those lakes which are most sensitive to nutrient enrichment, to assess the degree to which individual lakes have responded to human nutrient inputs and to develop management plans.

  8.  The Town of Kearney should implement a program to collect spring phosphorus data for Grass Lake, Island Lake, Loon Lake, Sand Lake, Long Lake, Buck Lake, Tea Lake, North Lake, Lower Raven Lake, Crooked Lake, Graphite Lake and Emsdale Lake. They should maintain contact with MNR to ensure that sampling of temperature and dissolved oxygen profiles on these lakes is repeated at three year intervals. The sampling program should be implemented for two years to start and repeated at three-year intervals. The MNR contact for the lake trout assessment program in 2004 was Mr. Steve Taylor, at MNR's High Falls office in Bracebridge. (705-646-5513).


Septic Systems

Most of the inhabited areas within the town of Kearney are characterized by pervious sandy soils and proximity to surface water. As a result, there was little visible evidence of hydraulic septic failure such as pooling or breakouts, as these would be less prevalent and more difficult to detect than they would be in areas with less pervious soils, such as those with higher content of silt or clay. The assessment program demonstrated that although many older systems exist in Kearney, the occurrence of visible malfunctions was low. On this basis, overall septic system condition was acceptable.

Although no visible failures were observed - 6.5 % of the 321 systems inspected were considered to be of high risk for contaminating surface or groundwater on the basis of containing old steel septic tanks, an unknown location of the system, a high water table, a holding tank that never required pumping or fixtures draining to soil. Approximately 10% of the inspected systems were considered to be low risk of failure because of pump failure a home built septic bed, vegetation such as a sapling growing in the tile bed or bright grass growing over the tank outlet indicating loss of nutrients and water from the system. Systems that were considered high risk or low risk were forwarded to the NBMCA and follow-up inspections are ongoing.

We also note that many septic systems in the town are old and were built prior to implementation of strict requirements for their construction. Modern day septic system requirements are more stringent and systems built to these requirements will largely protect surface water and public health.

The well water survey showed that total coliform bacteria were present in 9 of 68 wells sampled and E. coli in 2 of 68. Nitrate levels were enriched above background in 38% of the wells sampled, and at or above Ontario's Drinking Water Objective of 10 mg/L in 5 wells. These results suggest the need for protection of near surface groundwater quality and we note that they may indicate surface influence as well as septic influences on water quality.

Approximately 50% of the residences surveyed in the septic program indicated that they drew domestic water supply from surface water and an additional 35% had installed treatment systems for their well water. The hydro geological conditions in the study area show a very strong connection between surface water and groundwater (see below) and a high sensitivity of groundwater to surface water influence. At this point in time, water quality conditions do not suggest an immediate need for a communal (municipal) water supply from a public health perspective. Nevertheless, there is evidence that shallow groundwater has been degraded. This, plus elevated bacterial levels in surface waters in populated areas means that a diligent management program is required on behalf of individual home owners.


A series of recommendations were made for management of septic systems to protect surface water, groundwater and public health in the Town of Kearney.

  1. The Town of Kearney should implement a domestic well water awareness program among its residents to ensure that individual water supplies are protected from surface influence and septic system leachate. The awareness program should include encouraging routine testing of water supplies for nitrate and bacteria by homeowners, upgrading septic systems where applicable, discouraging lawn fertilizing activities, inspections of individual wells by a qualified installer to ensure that well casings are intact and effective, discouraging pet and waterfowl activity in the vicinity of wells and promoting awareness of home water treatment systems.

  1. We recommend that the Town of Kearney continue to work co-operatively with the NBMCA to ensure that compliance and follow-up for problematic septic systems is undertaken.


The hydro geologic regime of Kearney is typical for the Precambrian Shield - it is dominated by a shallow groundwater system in thin soils over bedrock and by surface water in the form of lakes, rivers, streams and wetlands. Residents obtain water from nearby surface sources or from shallow wells. The limited number of wells and their generally shallow nature limited the amount of available hydro geologic data and therefore the ability to provide detailed descriptions of soil distribution, depth to water table, bedrock characteristics or any deep aquifer in the bedrock. Nevertheless, our analyses provided a useful and accurate description, sufficient to recommend management strategies for groundwater protection in the Town of Kearney.


  1. Most wells in the area are shallow, dug sand points, or are bored and susceptible to contamination from surface sources or septic systems, as shown by enriched nitrate concentrations in 38% of the wells surveyed.

  2. There are limited groundwater users in the area due to abundant surface water resources and so water well records are sparse and not of sufficient density to develop a meaningful interpretation of hydrostratigraphy, groundwater quality and aquifer yield in the area.

  3. The identification of major stratigraphic units (i.e., glacial deposits) from a surficial geological mapping analysis provided a reasonable conceptual understanding of the distribution of the geologic formations for purposes of regional hydro geological modeling.

  4. The Precambrian bedrock is the dominant geologic unit and controls groundwater flow in the area.

  5. Groundwater comprises approximately 46% of the renewable water surplus while surface water comprises approximately 54%. The residence time for groundwater prior to surface water interception is short, indicative of the shallow nature of the system.

  6. The groundwater system in the Kearney area has a direct hydraulic connection to surface water, as a result of shallow soils and the prevalence of surface water. Such "Groundwater Under the Direct Influence" of surface water ("GUDI") is susceptible to contamination and must be managed in a cautious manner.

  7. There are abundant groundwater resources in the area, given the current population use of groundwater in the region, the absence of any significant water takings, and the high potential recharge.

  8. The aquifer system is a complex network of bedrock and thin and discontinuous sand and gravel deposits. The nature of fractures in the bedrock is uncertain, due to the absence of deep wells and logs of their characteristics. Our analysis assumed that the bedrock was fractured as a precautionary approach in the absence of information, although the water balance that was developed showed little evidence of the loss of significant amounts of water to deep aquifers. This suggests that fractures are not widespread.

  9. Population density is low resulting in very little impact to the groundwater resources from industrial and commercial land uses. Most industry in Kearney poses little risk to groundwater. Exceptions are the International Graphite Mine property and several pits and quarries which pose potential high risks due to site disturbance and use of heavy equipment. These activities can be managed, however, to avoid threats to groundwater.

  10. Eleven Legacy Sites were located relating to historic industries that could pose a threat to groundwater quality.

  11. The only documented incidence of well water contamination from industrial or commercial sources was that of petroleum hydrocarbon in the public water supply at the community centre.


A series of specific recommendations were made in the text of the report to guide the long term protection and management of groundwater in the Town of Kearney.

  1. The Kearney Study is recommended as a "conservative preliminary assessment" of groundwater sensitivity based on existing data sources. These results should be supplemented by site-specific studies done at a greater level of detail in support of any proposals to modify land use or use groundwater resources in the Town of Kearney.

  1. Water takings in the Town of Kearney, whether large scale or small, should proceed with the understanding that groundwater in the area is under the direct influence of surface water ("GUDI") and, as such, is susceptible to contamination from surface sources. In accordance with the Ontario Drinking Water Standards, water from GUDI wells must receive chemically assisted filtration and disinfection (or equivalent treatment process) unless a hydro geological study shows, to the satisfaction of the MOE, that the aquifer is providing effective in situ filtration, generally interpreted as water that is free of particulate matter and coliform bacteria. Depending on cost and feasibility, the Town may wish to promote water takings from deeper aquifers that are not influenced by surface water.

  1. Any proponents of large - scale water takings (those that exceed 50,000 L/day, the MOE threshold requirement for a Permit to Take Water) in the Town of Kearney should consider a site specific assessment of the availability and quality of deep groundwater that was not possible in this study, to account for conditions specific to the site of their proposal and to avoid the risk associated with taking and use of GUDI.

  1. The Town of Kearney should work with the Muskoka-Parry Sound Health Unit to ensure that all residents understand that all potable water supplies are susceptible to surface water contamination and should be tested regularly and treated.

  1. The vulnerability of groundwater in The Town of Kearney, and its intimate association with surface water mean that the Town of Kearney should ensure that aquifer protection is addressed in all land use decisions.

  1. If petroleum issues in groundwater continue in the vicinity of the community centre, a drilling program would enhance the understanding of the surficial geology and clarify the vertical structure allowing further insight into the source of the contamination. The Town should seek funding to a) identify and remediate the source of hydrocarbon contamination in the groundwater and b) drill a municipal well into the deep bedrock. This would provide a more reliable source that was free of petroleum tainting. "Packer testing" of the well and analysis of the well core would provide useful and needed information on bedrock fracturing and the deep aquifer in the Kearney area

  1. The Town of Kearney should obtain or develop, and implement, a manual and program of Best Management Practices for industrial and commercial operators in the town that is focused on industrial hygiene and spills prevention to reduce threats to groundwater in the Town.

  1. The Town of Kearney should co-ordinate and encourage the completion of Phase 1 Environmental Site Assessments at each Legacy Site to assess any actual or potential threats to human and environment health posed by them.

  1. The Town of Kearney and the Kearney Watershed Environmental Foundation should use the resources available from the Muskoka Watershed Council to help structure watershed protection initiatives in the Town of Kearney and the watershed of the Upper Magnetawan River.

  1. The Town of Kearney should drill several deep boreholes, log the geological and hydro geological characteristics and conduct packer tests to assess the status and characteristics of deeper aquifers in the Town and the integrity of the bedrock.

  1. The Town of Kearney should encourage the development and implementation of a "Manual of Best Management Practices" and "Environmental Farm Plans" for agricultural activities within the watershed.

  1. The Town of Kearney should encourage the development and implementation of Best Management Practices for bored and dug wells at individual residences to protect water users.

  1. The Town of Kearney should investigate the feasibility of managing pesticide use to prevent contamination of water supplies and develop Best Management Practices to guide residents.

  1. The Town of Kearney should undertake a septic re-inspection program, similar to that described herein, at ten-year intervals, to ensure that systems have not deteriorated with time. The program should be focused on areas of high density and high aquifer vulnerability.

  1. The sensitivity of the ground and surface waters in Kearney, the density of older development in the town centre and the potential for large scale resort development in the future all suggest that, at some point, communal water treatment and discharge may be required to ensure long-term protection of the water resource. The Town of Kearney should undertake a proactive assessment of the assimilation capacity in the Magnetawan River prior to making commitments to growth in its population and any large scale resort development.

  1. The Town of Kearney should maintain a long term program of monitoring ground and surface water quality in the vicinity of their landfill to ensure that its operation does not threaten ground and surface waters.

  1. The Town of Kearney should work with local aggregate producers to develop and implement Best Management Practices for the protection of ground and surface waters.

  1. The Town of Kearney should work with local forestry operators to develop and implement Best Management Practices for the protection of ground and surface waters.

  1. The Town of Kearney should develop planning mechanisms to ensure that appropriate studies and field investigations are undertaken to determine groundwater and surface water interactions and protect groundwater quantity and quality in response to proposed developments such as golf courses, bottled water operations, quarries and pits, and land development in general.

  1. The Town of Kearney and the Kearney Watershed Environmental Foundation should work with the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans to identify those areas of groundwater upwelling in lakes that are important spawning habitat for brook trout.
    This should he followed by identification of the groundwater recharge areas that are linked to the spawning habitat and development of reasonable planning approaches (i.e., shoreline setbacks or restricted activities in recharge areas) to protect this function as lakes are developed. Logging activities in the watershed should also be screened to ensure that ecological functions of groundwater are maintained.

  1. The Town of Kearney should establish a database of permitted water takings as they occur in the Upper Magnetawan River watershed and should work with resource management agencies to establish ecological triggers for sustainability, and track cumulative water takings against these triggers.

  1. The Town of Kearney should implement an inventory of the distribution, function and interactions of wetlands within the Town and should seek partners to assist with this.

A series of more general recommendations were also made to inform future study and management of groundwater in the Town of Kearney.

  1. The Town of Kearney should assess the amount and nature of chemicals applied to road surfaces such as road salts and dust suppressants and develop Best Management Practices to reduce their use and thus reduce the potential for contamination of groundwater and nearby surface waters.

  2. The Town of Kearney should develop land use guidelines and protection programs with consideration of the sensitivity of groundwater and surface water, based on the specific recommendations made in this report.

  3. The Town of Kearney should develop and implement Best Management Practices for protection of groundwater for local light industry and commercial businesses.

  4. The Town of Kearney is physically isolated from environmental protection authorities such as MOE, MNR and the North Bay Martawa Conservation Authority. They should develop and implement their own response protocol for spills and groundwater contamination, ensure that spills response equipment is available and maintained and that trained personnel are available for spills response (i.e., volunteer fire fighters). This protocol should start with notification of the 'Spills Action Centre" of the Ontario MOE.

  1. The Town of Kearney should monitor and record land use changes in proximity to sensitive
    groundwater areas.

  2. The Town of Kearney should introduce training and public awareness in groundwater protection
    activities by:
    training of municipal staff charged with implementation;
    involvement of community groups (the Kearney Watershed Environmental Foundation is an excellent vehicle for this), and
    adding links and materials related to water resource protection to its web site. Examples of these are included in this report.

  3. The Province is preparing to implement a Source Water Protection Strategy. The Town of Kearney
    should apply to use funds from the Source Water Protection Strategy to supplement this study and to
    implement the recommendations made herein.

  4. The Town of Kearney should develop a Best Management Practices handbook that is specific to this area and which provides BMPs that are specific to local industry, local land use practice and the specific local environmental, and hydro geologic conditions.

  5. The Town of Kearney should implement a program to monitor groundwater conditions on and adjacent to the properties of those business and industrial activities identified as high-risk hazardous waste producers with respect to groundwater.

  6. This report revealed that there are very little data available for the Kearney area that could be used to better document groundwater and surface water interactions. Data to better understand these interaction should be collected through:

The North branch of the Magnetawan River above Pickerel Lake (Stn. 02EAO10);

The South Branch of the Magnetawan River near Emsdale (Stn. 02EA018);

Hydro Geological Modeling

A hydro geological model was developed for the study area. Although the data available for the model were limited, the model provided useful information to guide the assessment.


  1. The model developed for this project provides a reasonable representation of regional groundwater levels and flow directions.

  2. The hydro geological model demonstrated the close interaction between the shallow groundwater system and the surface water system in Kearney.

  3. The water balance for the model provides a reasonable estimate of groundwater volumes within the active model domain and the movement of groundwater in relation to regional streams and lakes.

  4. It is difficult to simulate the distribution of groundwater influx to the various sub-watersheds throughout the study area, due to the shortage of data for calibration.

  5. Improved model resolution is required to provide accurate assessments of future changes in groundwater quality or the implications of contaminant migration.


The following recommendations are made to supplement the specific recommendations made above to guide the long term protection and management of groundwater in the Town of Kearney.

  1. Any new and significant water takings should be assessed and modeled using a simulation to identify the potential for interference with groundwater discharge, stream flow and ecological functions of the area where the takings will occur.

  2. If specific contaminants are identified as potential risks, contaminant transport modeling should be undertaken based on the groundwater flow model. Examples include hydrocarbons in the municipal well or contaminants from Legacy Sites.

  3. The model should be developed further to better represent groundwater movement into and out of ecological features such as streams, ponds, wetlands and rivers. As more wells are drilled and data are collected there will be an opportunity to improve this model.

  4. The model should be used to provide direction for exploratory programs designed to identify the effects of new groundwater takings, recreational land uses (golf courses, ski hills) and large-volume water users.


Overall, the Kearney Study focused on four key components: a study of surface water quality, an inspection of septic system performance, a study of groundwater sensitivity and threats and integration of the surface water, septic system and groundwater studies.
The thin soils and Precambrian Shield bedrock in Kearney provide clear illustration of the linkages between surficial geology, land use and surface and groundwater quality and the need to manage the environment as an integrated whole. Contaminants released to the Kearney environment will not be well attenuated by soil and will easily move overland to surface water, or through thin soil to shallow groundwater and hence to surface water. Here they will threaten ecological integrity and human users, who draw their water supply either from shallow groundwater or from surface water. The absence of adequate information on the bedrock and groundwater system meant that we assumed a conservative and precautionary approach to protecting water resources. This approach should be maintained, even as our database of information and our understanding of the system improve.


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