Meeting Minutes - Jane Mitchell: Grand River Conservation, A History - Aug. 3rd. 2017
President Ed Herold opened this meeting at 9:55 am in the Sanctuary of Trinity United Church with 45 members present and one guest, John Sneyd, attending for his third visit. He also welcomed guest presenter, Jane Mitchell.
After a few introductory remarks Kerry Gennings was called upon to introduce the guest speaker, Ms. Jane Mitchell, of the Grand River Conservation Authority.
Bio Presently the Past-Chair of the Grand River Conservation Authority, Jane was the Chair from 2011 to 2016. As Chair, Jane was a representative on the Lake Erie Source Water Protection Committee and a Director for Conservation Ontario. Jane was GRCA Vice-Chair for four years and a member for the past 14 years. Jane is an elected Regional Councillor for the Region of Waterloo, representing the City of Waterloo. Presently she is a representative on the Region’s Integrated Urban System Groundwater Study, the Residual Waste Master Plan Working Group, Biosolids Master Plan Update, and the Regional Source Water Protection Liaison Committee.
Presentation Description Cleaning up the Grand River: From Open Sewer to Award Winning River. Today people fish, swim and canoe along the Grand River. There is a fine array of flora and fauna. It wasn't always that way. Ms. Mitchell’s presentation informed us about how the Grand River went from an open sewer to an award winning Heritage River today.
Jane Mitchell (Jane included a number of slides with her presentation which can be found on the Club website under Speaker’s Notes).
CLEANING UP THE GRAND RIVER A satelite view of the Grand River Watershed shows it to be about the same size a PEI. It’s 1684 thousand square miles with a population of over one million. Eighty percent of the watershed is agriculture. The glaciers left behind hills of sand, gravel, boulders and dirt that are called moraines. A pair of moraines runs south west towards Brant County and are called the Paris Moraines. The water from the melting glaciers carved out river valleys creating spillways for the Speed and Eramosa Rivers. The confluence of these two rivers was the site where Guelph was located.
Two hundred and fifty years ago the watershed was forest and savanna inhabited by Anishinaabe Indians and the impact on the watershed was minimal. In the late 1700’s the landscape of the Grand River Valley was changed when the lands for six miles on either side of the Grand River were given to the Haudenosaunee and Six Nations Indians after the American War of Independence to replace their lands lost to the Americans. In events now surrounded by much controversy, the land was bought by the settlers.
The settlers got to work using the lands to feed their farms and villages and this took tremendous toll on the natural system. In 1800 most of the land was covered by forests, wetlands or grasslands but by 1900 almost all the trees and most of the wetlands were almost gone. Only five percent was tree covered. The change in the river system was dramatic. Snow melted faster in the spring because there was no tree cover. Water rushed off the lands into the rivers and as more trees were felled there were no wetlands to hold the run-off. Soil was washed off into the rivers and floods became common as wetlands disappeared.
Cities and towns grew up along the river and they needed a place to put their sewage so they dumped it into the nearest river or stream. By the early 1900’s the river system was a mess. Spring floods wiped out houses and factories. In 1929 one flood caused hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage and destroyed the Goldie’s Mill Dam in Guelph leaving the mill without a power source.
In the summers the rivers dried up to a trickle and much of the flow was sewage. Community leaders throughout the river shed recognized that they had to do something to address the flooding, water supply and water quality issues that threatened the vitality of their communities. In 1932 the province responded with a detailed report of the Grand River communities called the Finlayson Report named after the Minister of Lands and Forests. Recommendations that came out of this report was to build a series of reservoirs at strategic locations. During the spring water running off the land would be stored in reservoirs. During the summers and falls the water in the reservoirs would be released gradually. That way there would be enough water to meet the needs of the water supply and sewage treatment.
It’s first project was to build the Shand Dam in 1942 which created Belwood Lake. One reservoir wasn’t enough and another big flood occurred in 1948 and Hurricane Hazel struck in 1954. More reservoirs were built: Luther Dam in 1952 and Conestoga Dam in 1956. A whole lot of land was bought but no reservoir was built around Westmontrose. The Commission also worked to restore the natural system and opened tree nurseries and many thousands of trees were planted.
The problems of the Grand Valley were not unique. Environmental activists urged the province to take action. In 1941 they organized the Guelph Conference on Conservation and groups came together to discuss how the province could take environmental protection. After the Second World War the province took action. In 1946 they passed the Conservation Authorities Act to create local conservation agencies and following that The Grand River Conservation Commission. The power to create authorities was placed in the hands of municipalities of the watershed.
In 1948 the municipalities created the Grand Valley Conservation Authority. Now there were two agencies at work in the Grand River watershed. The Commission, the older agency, was primarily concerned with working with reservoirs and some restoration work. The Authority worked on protecting natural areas for recreation and opened The Elora Gorge Park in 1954. Their responsibilities overlapped and for many years the two agencies worked side by side.
One accomplishment was to reduce the flooding in Guelph. The river valley along Wellington Street was rebuilt to reduce flooding. In 1966 the green space on the north side of the river was developed for recreation and is known as Guelph Silvercreek Park.
However it became clear that it was impractical to have two similar authorities doing the same work. So in 1966 the Grand River Commission and the Grand Valley Authority merged to become the Grand River Conservation Authority.
The new authority continued to expand the reservoir network in the 1970’s adding new dams in Waterloo, Cambridge and Elmira. One of the new projects was to open the Guelph Dam built in 1976. This had a huge impact on the development of the City of Guelph. This reduced flood damage and ensured there is water flowing down the Speed River in the summer through Guelph.
In 1974 several days of rain caused a flood causing several million dollars in damages in Cambridge, Kitchener and Paris. As a result of the floods, new dikes were built in Bridgeport (Kitchener), Galt (Cambridge) and Brantford which now protect those three communities against floods the size of 1974 and even bigger.
There are two strategies used to reduce flood damages. The first is the structural approach; building dams and dykes to keep the water away from people. The second way to reduce flood damage is called the non-structural approach. That means keeping people away from the water. For the most part this is accomplished by restricting developments in the flood plain. Existing properties are allowed in some circumstances because many properties, structures and buildings were built many years ago before flood control was put in place. Another way is to have a good flood forecasting system. It is important to let people know when floods are going to threaten. This allows municipalities and property owners to prepare by sand bagging and shutting off utilities and so on. This can happen at any time of the year.
The weather and water levels are monitored seven days per week all year round. River flow gauges are in place at strategic locations and information comes into the GRCA offices 365 days per year. If there is a massive change in this information, alarms go off and a duty officer takes note and gets the early warning system up and running. There are flood coordinators at municipal offices. With climate change there are sudden unpredictable rainstorms bringing large quantities of rain in a short period.
The water quality in the watershed also needed improvement. The river needed to be controlled to dilute the wastewater being carried away and to provide drinking water. In the 1800’s cholera, diphtheria and typhoid fever was common because sewers and outhouses were emitted so close to rivers. Untreated waste washed up on shores and beaches. This was often close to intake for drinking water. Gradually provincial and public health laws were amended. With the introduction of chlorine treatment, drinking water was purified and sewage and water treatment plants were gradually introduced in the Region of Waterloo and Guelph in the 1900’s. The first wastewater treatment plants contained settling beds and sediment tanks and gravel beds. The treatment of sewage is considered one of the top achievements more fundamental than the introduction of inoculations and antibiotics.
Guelph is a big city and has one of the best and most advanced sewage treatment plants in Ontario. However there is always a small amount of pollutants coming out of the plant – things like phosphorus, nitrates and ammonia – which are plant fertilizers. With the effluent coming out of the plant, aquatic plants and algae absorb the chemical nutrients. With too many nutrients you get too many plants and algae which take up too much oxygen which means there isn’t enough oxygen for fish. If this happens it kills off the fish and other aquatic life. However water from Guelph Lake ensures that there is enough water in the Speed River to handle the effluent coming out of the water treatment plant. On top of that the Guelph water treatment plant has done a great job of handling the amount of nutrients coming out of the plant. Guelph has become a model copied by other municipalities in Ontario. Even as Guelph has grown the Speed has become a cleaner, healthier river.
The GRCA has an extensive program to monitor water quality. The Authority works with the Ministry of the Environment to maintain surface and ground water quality. Water samples are collected at 36 river and stream locations ten times a year. The Ministry analyses the samples and sends the test results. Additional information is collected at 27 wells to monitor water quality around the watershed. Water is measured to determine oxygen content, pH levels and temperature. That information goes for analysis and is posted on the website. With this information at hand we can assess the impact of urban development and foresee the need for expansion of future water and sewage treatment plants.
The GRCA works with the City of Guelph, the County of Wellington and other municipalities to help farmers protect water quality on their land. The municipalities provide money that goes to farmers as grants to help them undertake projects such as fencing cattle out of streams, building manure sewage tanks and planting trees. The farmers are expected to fund about 50 percent of the projects but most actually spend more. This program began in 1999. More than two thousand projects have been completed. There are similar programs in Waterloo and Brant Counties with new programs being developed in Dufferin and Haldimand County.
Many of these programs involve planting trees to prevent erosion, provide shade for the streams and to soak up excess nutrients in the soil. Over the decades thousands of landowners have been involved in the tree planting programs. In the nearly eighty years that GRCA has been around they have planted more than 26 million trees. In the early years of this country most of the land was tree covered but by 1900 only 5 percent was tree covered. The tree cover has now bounced back to 19 percent. Thirty percent coverage is recommended for a healthy watershed. More trees are being added every year. Many communities have enacted by-laws to protect trees and community groups are involved such as the Guelph Urban Forest group.
Every step has been taken to help the health of the Grand River Watershed. The GRCA owns about 50 thousand acres of land with conservation areas such as the Guelph Conservation Area created in 1976 around the Guelph Lake. The GRCA owns more than 450 acres of land around the City of Guelph. Throughout the watershed natural areas protect natural habitats to protect species that are endangered. They also own 75 km of rail trail and are working on more trails that will go from one end of the Grand to the other.
There have been many improvements in the watershed and in 1994 the Grand River was designated a Canadian Heritage River. The Grand River was the first working river going through farmlands and growing cities to be given this designation. The Grand River has also been recognized as one of the best-managed rivers in the world. In 2000 the Grand River Conservation Authority on behalf of its partners was awarded the Peace River Prize, by International River Foundation in Brisbane, Australia. What’s amazing is that this was bestowed on a river that was once described as “an open sewer.”
In recent decades the rivers have been restored to something that can be enjoyed and not shunned. There are tremendous recreation opportunities for people who want to fish. There are people making a living renting canoes or offering cruises. A few years ago that would have been unimaginable. (End of presentation)
Following her presentation, Ms. Mitchell responded to questions from the membership.
Kerry Gennings thanked Jane Mitchell for her presentation and said he was pleased to note how the presentation was adapted to interest a Guelph audience. He presented Ms. Mitchell with a token of the Club’s appreciation, which, at Ms. Mitchell’s request, was being donated to the Grand River Conservation Foundation.
Announcements Activities – Ray Biffis - A night at the Races at Elora is scheduled for Mon. Sept 25th and a sign-up sheet is available; - one table has been reserved for people with stair-climbing difficulty. Reserve by letting Ray know if you want to sit at this table.
- Coffee club meetings are held on alternate Thursday’s at the Boathouse or Airpark Café.
Next Meeting: August 17th in the Sanctuary - Guest Speaker will be Judith Yan about “Musical Adventures"