Toronto Star Series : Ontario’s vital watershed facing new risks

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Every Sunday from September 14th to October 17th we'll be publishing a Greenbelt-focused article by veteran Toronto Star journalist John Barber. The articles, which will first run in the Toronto Star on the Saturdays preceding our posts, cover a range of topics relevant to the Greenbelt as it exists today, and to the challenges it may face in the future. On the Wednesdays following each of Barber's articles, we'll be using his pieces as a conversation catalyst in an evening Twitter Party from 8pm to 9pm.

Ontario's vital watershed facing new risks

Limiting suburban sprawl is key to preserving crucial water supply

Photo Credit: David McCaig
By: John Barber

Standing amid wildflowers at the edge of a pond deep in Hamilton's Dundas Valley, skirted on three sides by the forested walls of the Niagara Escarpment – and with a curious young raccoon distracting his audience – Alan Hansell runs through a depressing litany of environmental insults. As leader of the Stewards of Cootes Watershed, a group dedicated to rehabilitating the 22 creeks that spill over the escarpment and drain into Cootes Paradise at the westernmost end of Lake Ontario, Hansell wants his small flock of litter-picking volunteers to know what they are really up against.

He says that “suspended solids” creating “rivers of chocolate” are the major threat to the aptly named wetland, home to a quarter of all animal species found in Canada. The picturesque creeks that make the City of Hamilton the “waterfall capital of Canada” also carry pesticides, human waste, road salt, motor oil, biological pathogens, even “hormone-mimicking” pharmaceuticals.

“Every spring between five and 20 million fish are hatched in Cootes Paradise,” Hansell explains. It is the most productive fish hatchery in western Lake Ontario. “And every year in Cootes Paradise they find, shall we say, sexually confused fish. They have either no reproductive system or both male and female parts. It's an ecological mess.”

The list of “major stressors” on the creeks and the marsh extends to nine, but in one sense they are all the same. “We used to think of pollution as coal-tar blobs and point emissions from evil industries,” Hansell explains. “But that's not the case anymore. Today it's you and me – and how we live.”

Two hundred years ago, the fast-flowing waters of the Dundas Valley gave birth to some of the first industries of Upper Canada, progenitors of the mighty steelworks that have long dominated Hamilton Harbour, several kilometres to the east. But no sooner did the creeks begin to recover their natural character than a new onslaught began: the ceaseless paving of the uplands where they originate, the suburban sprawl that is now the source of every ill that pours into the marsh and out to the lake – the same lake from which more than six million Ontarians draw their drinking water.

The cumulative effect can be catastrophic, as residents of nearby Burlington discovered this summer after a heavy rain left their downtown submerged under more than a metre of water. Flash floods following extreme weather are now almost common in every one of the lake's urbanized watersheds, overwhelming key infrastructure and speeding more poisons into the well.

Limiting urban sprawl is essential to preserve the quality of the water we all drink, according to Gail Krantzberg, professor of civil engineering at nearby McMaster University and a leading expert on Great Lakes water issues. And the one best hope we have to do that, she says, is the Ontario Greenbelt.

“The Greenbelt has been talked about a lot in terms of agriculture,” Prof. Krantzberg says, “but I don't think most people understand how important it is as a provider of clean waters for them.”

The Greenbelt is not only the richest farmland in the country, Krantzberg explains, it is also a vital headwaters region. “It's the sponge of all the tributaries that flow down into Lake Ontario,” she says. “So it's the source of our drinking water, it's the source of water for the rivers and streams and the fish and wildlife that live there.

"If we denude the Greenbelt,” she adds, “we're paving over that sponge. We need to keep that green, porous system that purifies the water and sends it down ultimately to Lake Ontario.”

People want those waters, Krantzberg says. More to the point: “They need those waters.”

Back on the shores of Cootes Paradise, Ancaster resident Allan Beattie is circulating a no-hope petition to prevent Hamilton city council from approving a new plan that would permit the discharge of raw sewage into the creeks in an emergency – the kind of flood that is now almost common. But mostly he is concerned about massive new development in the unprotected headwaters of the creek that runs through his property.

“Ancaster Creek is why Ancaster is there, because it was a good-flowing stream coming over the escarpment,” he says. Pollution has harmed it, but headwaters development could destroy it. “If you don't save the headwaters of the stream, eventually you don't have a stream,” Beattie says. “You end up with a sewer.”

Thanks to the Greenbelt, there is much better news now emerging elsewhere throughout the Golden Horseshoe. The Greenbelt is a rare and refreshing example of proactive policy to protect our water, according to Krantzberg.

“What we're seeing is preservation of what we have, we're seeing a lack of degradation and a stop to sprawl,” she says. “We're seeing things that would otherwise impair the water being halted before they can even start, and that's outstanding.”

New hope is not confined solely to pristine upland watersheds, Krantzberg notes. A number of cities, including Mississauga, Oakville and Toronto, are currently applying to the province to expand the Greenbelt to include the already urbanized valleys of their major streams. That, she says, is “outstanding good news.”

Last year, the first pair of bald eagles to nest on the shores of Lake Ontario in 50 years hatched their young in the woods overlooking Cootes Paradise. This year they returned, their presence a glorious affirmation of all the efforts volunteers and policymakers have made to heal the local watershed – creating the Greenbelt most of all.

Whatever else may happen, there is no rolling back the blanket of green the eagles can see from the top of their tall white pine in Cootes Paradise.

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