Find out how this ERS alumn is a geographic detective on the trail of hidden environmental dangers 

Tim Patterson

When most water wells are first dug, they offer a lifeline to a farm and community. But when those wells are no longer needed, they can become a dangerous and often hidden hazard. Environment and Resource Studies alumnus Tim Patterson’s job is to search for these potentially dangerous old wells using a combination of historical records, aerial photos and old-fashioned scientific inference.  

In today’s modern working world, when most employees search for information it usually means typing a keyword into Google, or Outlook. In rare cases, it might mean swiveling around in an office chair and digging through an old filing cabinet. This is where geographers like Patterson stand out. When geographers search for something, it often means strapping on some boots, donning a weather-proof jacket and getting dirty in our natural environment.

“I am the field technologist, so I was asked to physically go out and look for these things,” says Patterson of the wells he is charged to locate in his position with the Grand River Conservation Authority in Ontario.

To date, Patterson has found 127 abandoned wells, mainly located in the northern portion of the Grand River watershed. It’s here where, over the past half-century, multiple homesteads were purchased by the Grand River Conservation Authority for the purpose of environmental preservation.

These areas have mainly been converted to public spaces. As such, hikers, hunters and nature-lovers face the risk (though not a heavy one) of falling into a well that has been hidden by natural processes over time. “The wells can range from a couple of feet deep to as much as 50 metres,” says Patterson.

Thanks to Patterson’s work, there haven’t been any accidents to date. However, there is another danger these wells present to the natural environment. Toxic spills, or large amounts of animal feces, can be washed down the well in a heavy rain into the exposed watershed causing  contamination.

Again, nothing this severe has happened thanks to Patterson’s sleuthing. But how exactly does one find hidden wells? The process starts with aerial photography.

“I’ll zoom in on areas where it looks like there may have been a homestead there at one point,” he explains. Ruins are the most obvious thing to look for, but sometimes I’ll look for the remnants of a driveway. I’ll mark the coordinates and go out there with a GPS.”

In some cases the wells are close to 100 years old. Most of the original owners have long-since passed, but every once in a while, Patterson will connect with someone who has local historical knowledge to give him a few clues as to where he should look. The job has given Patterson a new appreciation of the Region.

“I kind of imagine what it was like to live in that spot way back when. I have a bit of a feel for what the lifestyle might have been like,” he says. “If I see old ruins on a hill by the lake, I imagine where their pasture may have been, where the farm was and who their neighbours were.”