What is a Watershed and What’s Unique About Ours?

Everyone lives in a watershed and here in Kenora, we live in what’s called the Rainy-Lake of the Woods Watershed, a massive basin, with its beginnings (called headwaters) only a short distance west of Lake Superior. A watershed is like a bathtub or catch basin, defined by high points and ridgelines that descend into lower elevations and stream valleys. A watershed carries water that is “shed” from the land after rain falls and snow melts. Drop by drop, water is channeled into the soils, groundwater, creeks and streams, making its way to larger rivers, lakes and eventually, the sea. Water interacts with all that it comes in contact with – the land it traverses and the soils through which is travels. Most importantly, what we do to the land and air affects water quality for all communities living downstream of us. The Rainy-Lake of the Woods Watershed is 69,750 sq. km, roughly 400 km east to west and 260 km north to south. About 41 per cent of the watershed is in the U.S. and 59 per cent is in Canada. If you’ve travelled to Atikokan or Upsala in Ontario or Ely or Cook in Minnesota, you were still in our watershed. If you’ve paddled the Turtle River in Ontario or fished in Vermilion Lake in Minnesota, you were still in our watershed. Approximately 14 per cent of the watershed is open water; where there is land, 93 per cent is covered by forest or grassland, and much of that is within provincial parks and national forests. Only 6.4 per cent of the landbase is agricultural, mostly found in the lower Rainy River area. In our watershed, all the water flows towards either the Rainy River or Lake of the Woods, funnels into the Winnipeg River at Kenora and eventually reaches Lake Winnipeg. About 70 per cent of the water that flows into Lake of the Woods comes directly from the Rainy River, which of course is half in Canada and half in the U.S. This truly makes our watershed unique – water knows no boundaries and, as demonstrated naturally here, although the water comes from two countries, it meets up in one common place – right here in Kenora where our outlets steer it off to travel into another province to yet again mingle with new water. 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.
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