By John Bacher
One of the most insidious aspects of urban sprawl is that it kills our waters.
Once watersheds become urbanized, even at a level as low six per cent of the land mass, the streams within them begin to die. The aquatic biota within them become progressively less diverse, in response to pollution from road salts, automotive fluids and eroding sediment.
There is no healthy watershed in Ontario with streams that have been urbanized beyond the 30 per cent level. In all of Canada the most polluted stream, the Don River watershed in the Greater Toronto Area is in the heaviest urbanized watershed with over 80 percent encased in urban zoning.
In the southern Greenbelt area that includes the Niagara region, there are a number of places where urbanization threaten to degrade streams. This threat is why the urban boundaries of the West Lincoln town of Smithville have been the subject of so much wheeling and dealing behind the back doors between the provincial government, developers, West Lincoln and the Niagara Region.
The threat is also the worst aspect of schemes for the Airport Employment District in Hamilton, This has been the basis for disputes, meditations and Ontario Municipal Board (OMB) hearings for about 20 years.
One of the most dramatic areas where water quality and urban boundaries are connected is in the City of Niagara Falls. Pollution problems here have caught the attention of veteran environmentalist, Jean Grandoni, who has seen in the course of her lifetime, urbanized watersheds such as Beaverdams and Shriners Creek turn into open sewers.
Three streams – Beaverdams, Shriners and Ten Mile Creek – flow from the city of Niagara Falls into the Welland Canal Turning Basin. This is a provincially significant system of wetlands , which still supports valuable game species such as the Northern Pike. However, a myriad of assaults on the environment, such as illegal dumping and pollution, have prevented the pike from spawning within the City of Niagara Falls as they still did during the 1950
Although the Ten Mile’s Creek’s flow problems have created difficulty in it maintaining fish habitat, it remains important for breeding amphibians. The stream is connected with forested vernal pool wetlands running through it, one of which a concept plan for a proposed development suggested be turned into a storm water management pond. Unlike urbanized Beaverdams and Shriners Creek, almost all of the watershed of Ten Mile Creek is on agriculturally zoned lands.
To determine the impact of urbanization of water quality, Jean Grandoni worked with Professor Mike Dickman, who in 2013 was the recipient of the Niagara Region’s Lifetime Environmental Achievement Award.
Dickman analyzed water the results of water sampling taken by Jean Grandoni, and analyzed by laboratories as to E. Coli counts. This is the bacterial indicator of contamination that became infamous after the Walkerton drinking water disaster, which resulted in human fatalities.
In a September 20, 2012 letter to the Niagara Region, Dickman presented his findings. “By way of background-E. Coli is a strong indicator of recent sewate contamination. The level of E. Coli in the water must be zero if the water is to be used for drinking. If there are more than 100 E. Coli colonies per 100ml of water it should not be used for primary contact. (eg. swimming). If there are more than 576 E. Coli colonies per 100ml of water it should not be used for secondary contact. (e. g. wading and fishing).”
Dickman found enormously high E. Coli levels in the Shriners Creek. He found that even during dry periods “when storm water overflows do not occur, the average E. Coli concentrations in Shriner’s Creek is 8,400.” During times of precipitation events Dickman found that “the average jumps to 65,714.”
Dickman also found a vivid contrast with E. Coli levels in urbanized Shriner’s Creek with that of the agriculturally zoned Ten Mile. E. Coli counts on the Ten Mile ranged from a low of 20 to a high of 180. This illustrates the enormous contrast with water quality in a forested and agricultural environment, with an urbanized area, where precipitation events routinely caused enormous sewage surcharges into surface waters.
Stopping sprawl is a critical step to protecting our waters.
To protect our waters come to the public consultation on the Greenbelt, which the provincial government is having on Wednesday, April 15 in St. Catharines from 6 to 9 p.m. It will be held at 327 Ontario Street, at the Holiday Inn Parkway Suites Conference Center.
John Bacher is working with the Greenbelt Program team at the Sierra Club Canada Foundation and the Niagara-based citizens group, the Preservation of Agriculture Lands Society. This is another in a series on articles on the review. Later articles on the review will deal with wildlife, forests, fruitland , water pollution, the Niagara Escarpment and forests.
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