A Grand challenge
As population in the watershed booms, it is more important than ever to keep the river clear and clean
WATERLOO REGION — When Doug Richards was a boy, more than 60 years ago, he remembers watching the waters of the Grand River flow by coloured brilliant blue or red from chemical dyes dumped from textile mills in Galt and Hespeler.
"When the mills would dump their dye vats, the water would run whatever colour they would be dumping into the river," he said. It was perfectly normal to see scummy foam floating on the surface of the water. "That had been going on for I don't know how long. They just dumped into the river. There was no control of any sort."
Today, the river is a haven that attracts thousands of visitors on fine weekends to places like Elora Gorge and Glen Morris. It's a recognized national heritage river that is home to bald eagles, sandhill cranes, green herons, and prized sport fish such as steelhead and smallmouth bass.
But the Grand, which flows through the biggest watershed in southern Ontario, faces a number of serious challenges over the next few years.
Like Richards, Pat Mighton regularly paddles down the river. Sometimes she looks up and sees the roofs of new subdivisions that seem to have cropped up overnight.
The watershed has a population of about one million people, more than half of whom live in Waterloo Region, an area whose population is expected to jump 12 per cent in the next decade.
All those people leave their mark on the river. Twice a year, the Ancient Mariners canoe club of Cambridge organizes a cleanup of the Grand. They regularly pull out 75-80 bags of garbage, everything from tangles of fishing line, chunks of Styrofoam, plastic water bottles, old tires and grocery carts.
The population pressures on the Grand extend well beyond concerns about litter.
More people mean more demands for drinking water, and more toilets flushing, which means more treated sewage eventually making its way into the Grand.
In Waterloo Region alone, 13 treatment plants release about 65 million cubic metres of treated sewage into the Grand River each year. That's the equivalent of about 26,000 Olympic-sized pools. By 2050, the region expects to see that number increase by 30 to 40 per cent.
Areas like Toronto are also seeing plenty of growth. But in Toronto, the wastewater goes into Lake Ontario, a huge body of water — the 14th largest lake in the world.
"We've got one million people putting effluent and run-off into the Grand," notes Sandra Cooke, senior water quality supervisor at the Grand River Conservation Authority, which plays a lead role in protecting the river's water quality. "Growth has to be different in this area, because we are tied to an inland river system."
That imperative becomes even sharper because Waterloo Region relies on the river for 20 per cent of its drinking water.
Brantford, a city of almost 100,000, depends entirely on the Grand for its water supply. By the time the river flows into Brantford, it has received treated wastewater from 23 sewage treatment plants serving more than 800,000 people.
That vulnerability, the dependency on the Grand for drinking water, has translated into a strong incentive to make sure the river stays healthy, and that the burgeoning cities on its banks "have a gentler footprint on the river," Cooke said.
Perhaps the development that's had the single most significant impact on the health of the river has been with the investment of hundreds of millions of dollars in improvements at the Region of Waterloo's two largest sewage treatment plants, in Kitchener and Waterloo.
The region will spend close to $500 million for those upgrades, which began in 2011 and continue to 2019. That's a massive investment that has played out with much less scrutiny than the $800 million the region is spending to build the LRT. "We're talking very large dollars," acknowledged Nancy Kodousek, director of water services the Region of Waterloo. "It's a significant investment."
A good news story
The work has already led to what the region calls "immediate and dramatic improvements to the health of the Grand River watershed."
Before the upgrades, samples downstream from the treatment plants contained 120 micrograms of ammonia per litre of water — six times higher than the provincial objective of 20 micrograms per litre. By 2013, that had dropped to about 10 micrograms.
Because bacteria in the river use up oxygen to break down the ammonia, before the upgrades "there was next to no oxygen in the Grand" in some areas downstream from the treatment plants, Cooke said.
By 2013, oxygen levels in that part of the river had risen to between 6 and 7 micrograms per litre, well above the provincial standard of 4 micrograms.
The treatment plant improvements "are making a huge difference" to the health of the fish in the Grand, said Mark Servos, a UW biologist who is the Canada Research Chair in water quality protection.
Before the upgrades, the estrogen from birth control pills and chemicals that mimic natural hormones were making their way into the river, causing male rainbow darter fish to develop female traits. Concentrations were so high that in some areas, every male fish sampled in Servos' research showed some female traits. Immediately after the plants were upgraded, this dropped to 29 per cent. Within three years, it dropped below 10 per cent.
Kodousek predicts even better water quality to come. "We're still only halfway through our treatment upgrades. By 2019 we'll see further improvements," she says.
Pressures from farmland
Urban growth pressures aren't the only threat to the river. Most of the Grand's journey is through farmland. As the river flows downstream, manure and fertilizer farm run-off accumulate, "until you get nutrient levels that are two, three, four times the objective levels," Cooke said.
The GRCA has been working hard to encourage farmers to improve water quality by controlling erosion and run-off into the river. When Dennis Mighton first began canoeing the Grand about 20 years ago, he used to regularly see crops planted right to the river's edge. Today, he sees many more buffer zones of trees and plants along the shores of the river, which keep the banks stable, prevent livestock from getting to the river, and help trap sediment and farm chemicals running off from the fields.
Tree planting may sound low-tech, but it has a huge impact, says Rob Heal, a board member for Friends of the Grand. "You have less sediment going into the river," he said. "You get clearer, cleaner water, with less contaminants from farms leaching into the river."
Those contaminants encourage the growth of algae, which hog the oxygen in the water, killing off fish, plants and other species that would normally live in the river.
"The aquatic ecosystems really take a hit when there are too many nutrients," said Kim Van Meter, a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Waterloo who looked at more than 50 years' worth of data on the Grand with science professor Nandita Basu.
They found better farming practices and new crop varieties have led to bigger harvests, without increasing fertilizer use. "We are using smaller amounts of fertilizer, but our crop yields have increased. The fertilizer is being applied more efficiently, so less gets run off into streams," Basu said.
But those improvements can take years, or even decades, to translate into better water quality, researchers warn.
Managing a watershed that mostly flows through privately owned land is not easy, Cooke says. "We've made gains and we've had losses," she admits — a farmer may plant trees, and then the property is sold and the new owner cuts them down. "What we're after is two steps forward and maybe one step back occasionally."
The Grand is "a working river" and will never be as clean as a wild, northern river. "The goal isn't a pristine river," Cooke said. "The goal is improvement …. Bottom line, our objective is to see decreased levels (of contaminants) over time, or even if they stay the same while we're seeing increasing population."
Climate change uncertainty
Climate change presents another threat, though it's not clear how it will affect the river.
Climate models suggest we'll likely see more frequent, high-intensity storms, such as the torrential rain in August 2016 that flooded city streets and the parking lot at Fairview Park mall.
"We're seeing more rain in winter, we may see more freeze-thaw cycles and we're going to see drier later summers," Cooke said. These are crucial issues, she said. The river needs minimum water flows to absorb the treated sewage that's discharged into the Grand from growing populations. The GRCA releases water from its reservoirs in summer to ensure those minimum flows, so drier summers and winters with less snow are a big concern, she said.
Normally in winter, nitrogen from manure and fertilizer in farmers' fields stays locked in the frozen soil, and is only released until the weather warms up, when bacteria in the soil is able to break down the nitrogen.
But with climate change, Basu says, more rain is falling in winter, washing nitrogen into the river before the bacteria can get to it. Intense storms can also damage riverbanks and increase sediment. Scientists believe climate change may also be to blame for recent spikes in algal blooms.
Chloride levels are also creeping up in the river. Road salt and water softener salts are the main sources. The amounts are still within acceptable limits, but the trend is increasing.
Still, those who watch the river closely are cautiously optimistic.
One factor may enable us to meet that challenge is the strong co-operation between so many different groups — farmers, researchers, several provincial ministries, the conservation authority, and a host of municipalities.
"The Grand is a unique place, in terms of the commitment to work together," Basu said. "It's one of a kind, I would say. I have been in other watersheds in other parts of the world that are more vulnerable than the Grand, and you don't see that level of co-operation."
Heal, who operates a fly fishing business out of Fergus, says insects are "the canary in the coal mine for a healthy river." Species such as caddis flies and stoneflies won't thrive if the river isn't clean. And fewer insects mean fewer birds and fish that eat them. But Heal sees plenty of the bugs, especially in the middle stretches of the Grand, which sustain a healthy trout and steelhead fishery.
Canoeist Bob Fraser regularly sees eagles, osprey, great blue herons, and kingfishers on the river. "They're taking the fish out of the river. That tells me how healthy the river is and how it has improved over the years. Those guys wouldn't be here looking for their meals if it weren't."
The difficulty, Cooke says, may be "to make sure people keep their face to the river and value it, because we're going to have a multitude of challenges."
Charlie Macdonald has canoed the river for decades, and he believes the Grand is worth the effort. "I think the beauty of it is outstanding. It is a grand river.
"You come around a corner in the river, especially in the fall, and there's all of these beautiful trees, and the colour, and the water and the sky."
He pauses to find the words to describe the beauty of such a scene. "It's just, it's a poem."
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Dec 02, 2017 by Catherine Thompson Waterloo Region Record