September 29, 2010

West Credit still healthy, despite contamination

As published in The Erin Advocate

If the Town of Erin opts for communal sewage treatment, it will not be primarily to save the West Credit River from the impact of private septic systems. The river is actually doing quite well, in spite of some septic contamination, according to a report by Credit Valley Conservation (CVC).

Surface water quality is good and Brook Trout are spawning, even in the urban areas. Buffer zones of vegetation that help protect the water from human activity cover 84 per cent of the stream banks. Deep groundwater that supplies municipal wells has no impact from septic systems, no organic contaminants and no trace of other chemicals such as pesticides.

CVC spent about $350,000 to test the West Credit and monitor the local ecosystem in 2007-2008, analyze the results and produce this Existing Condition Report. It is the environmental component of Erin's Servicing and Settlement Master Plan (SSMP). The cost has been shared by all Credit watershed municipalities, with most of the funds coming from the Region of Peel.

Pollution levels in surface water have increased slightly since the mid-1970s, but are below limits considered acceptable by the federal and provincial governments. Contaminants flow from several sources, so it is not possible to measure how much originates with septic systems.

"Localized impacts were found to be mostly related to surface/stormwater runoff and the cumulative impact of the on-line ponds," said Jennifer Dougherty, Water Quality Engineer for CVC, in a recent presentation to Erin councillors. There are nine dams on the West Credit, creating impassable barriers for fish. The ponds collect sediment, boost water temperatures and alter vegetation and wildlife in the area.

Residential waste water is partially purified by septic tanks and drainage beds, then filtered in the soil. If septic systems are well-maintained, there is very little contamination. But with aging systems, poor soil conditions in some areas and a high concentration of village homes, there is more septic effluent in the shallow groundwater.

"There is an almost complete reduction in fecal bacteria," said Ray Blackport, a hydrogeologist who works with CVC and the Town. These bacteria can come from septic systems, but also from wildlife, pets, livestock and manure spreading. Higher levels of various harmful bacteria make water unsafe for swimming.

He noted that other septic contaminants such as nitrogen (nitrates), phosphorus, toxic organics from cleaning agents, heavy trace metals and dissolved inorganics such as chloride and sodium are of concern, because there is considerable exchange between the shallow groundwater and the river water.

Many farmers have taken steps to reduce the flow of contaminants from their land, and some land has been taken out of production, so it is possible (but not proven) that aging septic systems are contributing a greater proportion of the contamination than in the past.

Nitrates come from farms, urban stormwater runoff and septic systems. The highest nitrate levels are upstream of Hillsburgh, but the volume of contaminants drops in the core area of the village because a large volume of river water goes underground.

Nitrates are higher for short distances downstream of Hillsburgh and Erin village. The river recovers from these increases because vegetation absorbs nitrates. Higher levels of nitrates make it more difficult for fish and frog populations to spawn and prosper. West Credit nitrates average 2 mg per litre, while the federal guideline for nitrates is 3 mg per litre.

"Fortunately the buffer riparian area surrounding the West Credit River has a very high nitrogen removal capability," said Dougherty. "However, it is not wise to rely on our natural wetland/woodlands to filter out our contamination."

Chlorides come from road salt, dust suppression and septic systems (including water softener discharge). Higher levels can cause a decline in fish and frog populations in the long term. West Credit chlorides average 45 mg per litre, well below the draft federal guideline for protection of aquatic life of 128 mg per litre. They are increasing slightly faster than nitrates, however, and unlike nitrates they dissolve and accumulate in the system instead of dissipating.

The river is also affected by phosphorus, which comes from farm runoff, fertilizer application, urban stormwater and septic systems. High levels can lead to excessive algal and aquatic weed growth, which can reduce wildlife habitat and diversity.

This draft report was expected last January, but because CVC staff were busy with various obligations, it wasn't delivered to the Town until May. Councillors got a copy last month. On Sept. 14, a few members of the public, including some election candidates, attended an afternoon council meeting for a CVC presentation. The final report will be attached to the SSMP Background Issues Report this fall, and be available through the Town website.

September 15, 2010

Erin pioneers forged a strong community

As published in The Erin Advocate

After recently taking a picture of the date stone on the old Hillsburg town hall (now Morette's) I was poking around to find out when the "h" was added to the village name.

An article on the town website says it was about the time the police village was incorporated, 1899. The final "h" can be seen in the 1877 Wellington Atlas, but not in the 1906 Atlas, a 1907 insurance map or the 1911 census. C.J. McMillan, in his Early History of Erin Township in 1921, also uses no "h". I am told the "h" was added to make it sound less German. Perhaps the spelling is optional – some people still omit the "h". If anyone can shed more light on this, I would be most interested.

My main purpose today is to recommend the McMillan book, reprinted in 1974 by Boston Mills Press with an assortment of early photos, and available at local libraries. It is fascinating not so much for the historical facts, not all of which are accurate, but for the colourful portrait of Erin's pioneer society that had been passed on to the author through diaries and "tales told by the early settlers of their trials".

Writing 100 years after the first settler arrived, McMillan boasted that Erin Township had never had a crop failure. He was also impressed by the modern technology of his own era, "with news flashed across the continents in a minute of time."

Charles Kennedy, an early township surveyor, was offered a tract of land on the Ninth Line (part of the current Erin village) as payment for his work. McMillan said Kennedy, "not being favourably impressed with the wilderness, refused to have anything to do with Erin. He reported the land as of little value. His report made it easier for grandfather to get all the land he wanted at his own price and terms."

His grandfather was Donald McMillan, who made a 14-week voyage with his family from Argyleshire, Scotland in 1819. After renting a poor farm near Stoney Creek, he met a soldier who had been granted 100 acres in Erin Township. The man wanted $25 for it, but Donald dickered it down to $20. He acquired more land nearby, which now includes the Erin Pioneer Cemetery, just north of Erin village. "As his wife was the first white woman in that section, the Crown made her a gift of lot 18, concession 9."

The family of the first settler, Nathaniel Rozell, is described as "hard-working, frugal and friendly". They were granted land after serving in the War of 1812 and settled in 1820 at what would become Ballinafad.

"More settlers came and everyone was received with joy...All in the township were considered neighbors, and they would go a long way to put themselves to any inconvenience to help one another. They brought very little money, but they brought good health, strength and determination, which is the best asset after all.

"There were very few spongers and no loafers in those days...Whenever there was a logging bee or raising it was not necessary to give an invitation to all, just mention the fact, it soon got to the farthest away settler, and all would be on hand early. Whiskey was cheap and easily obtained and it was considered a necessity at all such gatherings." A two-gallon jug of "Cornick's" best could be filled for 25 cents.

"To consult a doctor was considered the shortest cut 'across the river'. If one was unfortunate enough to get a deep gash with an axe the neighbor with the best nerve was called to sew the wound with a common sewing machine needle, without administering anesthetic." When Matthew Smith bought the first buggy in the township and "rode in state to church," some jealous folk demanded he be disciplined for "showing an example of extravagance".

Of course, there were bilingualism issues: "As the township was settled by Scotch, and very Scotch at that, Gaelic was the universal tongue and later in court sittings one who was pretty well up in English and Gaelic, was sworn in as 'Court interpreter'. Laughlin McLean, being pretty free with the tongue, often acted as interpreter, giving general satisfaction."

Henry Trout had settled on the Ninth Line in 1821. C.J. McMillan does not mention that Trout built the first dam and mill in Erin village in 1826, at Charles Street, nor that it was bought by Donald McMillan's son Daniel, the entrepreneur responsible for the growth of MacMillan's Mills – later known as Erinsville, then Erin Village.

C.J.'s account says Daniel and his brothers Hugh and Charles, made the "first break in the wilderness where that beautiful village of Erin is located," by clearing three acres in 1832. He describes a mill-raising bee: "All the men available were on the ground to assist, accompanied by a dozen or more women, who volunteered to come to feed the men after their strenuous task. The men were hungry, the food prepared was excellent, but when all were satisfied, there was none left for the women, who had so generously supplied the food, and the most of them had come a long way on foot."

September 08, 2010

Septic inspections would maintain standards

As published in The Erin Advocate

With many septic systems in the Town of Erin reaching the end stages of useful service, perhaps it would be in the best interests of public health to start a municipal inspection system.

The provincial government gives municipalities the authority to do inspections, but does not require them to do so – at least not yet. The Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing has been talking about requiring septic re-inspections through changes to the Ontario Building Code, but such initiatives always proceed slowly.

A local inspection system is not being considered now, and I would be surprised if any election candidate would endorse the idea, but sooner or later, the issue will arise.

While vacationing near Goderich, I read about an inspection system started in 2007 by the Township of Huron-Kinloss, in response to requests from property owners.

Inspections and repairs are mandatory there, covering all 2,800 private septic systems in a rotating schedule over six to seven years. Their township website sums up the rationale: "If unmaintained, septic systems are a threat to public health and the environment."

By coincidence their system is operated by B.M. Ross, the same consultants doing Erin's Servicing and Settlement Master Plan (SSMP). Residents make an appointment, arrange to have their tank pumped out before the inspection, and ensure that the lid is accessible.

It is joint venture with the local health department, funded by a $55 per year surcharge on people's tax bills. The compliance rate is 99 per cent, and they even have "septic socials", with their mayor hosting educational demonstrations. Check it out in the Environmental Initiatives section of their website,

While building departments monitor construction of new septic systems and major renovations, the primary responsibility for maintenance and replacement falls to the property owner. Should the Town be sticking its nose into what some may consider a private matter?

I was contacted by a Hillsburgh village resident last year, who wanted to know about progress on municipal sewers. They were upset at getting high bacteria readings in their private well, and suspected local septic systems as the source.

Maybe this was an isolated incident, and maybe the well was defective, but it highlights a potentially risky environment, and a communal matter. I suspect it is being made worse by people holding off on septic replacements, wondering if sewers are coming any time soon. If your own waste is seeping up into your lawn, do not be holding your breath waiting for sewers. At a minimum, you should be paying for rehabilitation work, since sewers could take 5-10 years.

The Town of Erin has about 4,000 dwellings, 91 per cent of which are single detached homes and virtually all with septic systems. Since 2001, only 30 septic systems in the whole town were replaced. Systems normally last 25-30 years, though some last much longer. Today the average age of Erin village systems, not counting the newer subdivisions, is about 33 years.

A Health Department study in 1995 found that 61 per cent of homes in Erin village have inadequate space to replace a regular septic system to the modern standards of the Ontario Building Code. (Smaller systems may be possible, at a much higher cost.) There were 94 lots totally inaccessible to the large equipment needed to replace a septic system.

A Ministry of the Environment study in 2005 found "adverse effects" on the Credit River due to aging septics. The Ministry is adamant that sewage treatment is a necessity, not just to benefit the urban areas, but to handle the septage from rural properties. Septage is the sludge pumped out of septic tanks, which is now spread as fertilizer on Erin farm fields, or trucked at high cost to a plant in Collingwood.

To those who are opposed to sewers and the growth they will bring, I say now is the time to step forward with practical ideas. Fear of development is easy to whip up, but realistic solutions are harder to come by. The problems of a decaying septic infrastructure are serious, so doing nothing is not an option.

I have advocated a sewer system because it provides clear solutions to various problems, and I think major growth and excessive housing density are unlikely. But I am open to alternative ideas, and I hope that the SSMP will give serious attention to alternatives in its technical research. The SSMP is an Environmental Assessment that the Town was obliged to undertake, and is the only mechanism we have for dealing with this matter.

Credit Valley Conservation (CVC) has done a technical study on the health of the Credit River as part of the SSMP, and last month I urged Town Council to make it public before the election campaign. SSMP Project Manager Matt Pearson called that a "red herring".

Councillors got a copy on August 24. The CVC will make a presentation about the report to councillors next Tuesday, September 14 at 2 pm. It is open to the public.

I have written 12 columns on sewer-related issues since early 2009, so if you want some background before the election, go to my website: Just scroll through the topics and click on Sewers. For the SSMP section of the Town site, go to All households should receive an SSMP newsletter this month.

September 01, 2010

Hillsburgh Fun Day tour brought history to life

As published in The Erin Advocate

There is a big difference between reading about history and hearing stories from someone who has lived through them. That's why it was so interesting to take a tour of downtown Hillsburgh with long time resident Ivan Gray, during the recent Family Fun Day.

He provided a refresher on the earliest days of the village (before his time, which started in 1936). Naturally, someone asked if Hillsburgh named for the local hills. As most residents know, it was initially Howville, after William How who founded the settlement in 1821, then built a general store and trading post. In 1823, however, Nazareth Hill arrived, built the first hotel, surveyed the area and put his name to the village.

Gray took about 15 people on a tour, with commentary on the churches, businesses and Victorian homes, and showed photos of lost buildings that were once part of a strong downtown business district.

It is fascinating to hear some of the details, like how buggies were built in the Royal Bank building, or about slot machines at the soda bar. The once-classy Exchange Hotel, built about 1883, used to rent out horses and buggies so that tourists could tour the countryside. It was eventually converted to a restaurant and apartments, and is unused now, but Gray remembers it as a great place to play pool, and that it was once home to one of the first TVs in the village.

One of Gray's jobs was doing auto repairs for the McLaughlin family business, across the street from the current arena, which included an early Chev-Olds dealership. There was once a harness shop in that area, and in the 1940s an egg grading station. The village had several gas stations, but in those days there were virtually no cars on the road during the winter, allowing for wide open sled rides from the top of the hill, all the way to Station Road.

The two-storey Town Hall was built in 1887 by the Oddfellows and the Workmen Societies, and it was the scene of many dances and shows. The building was bought in 1962 by Bruce Morette for his furniture business, expanding from the factory he had established in 1958 at the former potato storage building near the CPR tracks.

Churches played a big role in the community, with the Baptists organizing in 1853 and building their church in 1862. Presbyterians formed a congregation in 1860 and built their church in 1869, named St. Andrew's in honor of their Scottish ancestry. The Hillsburgh Christian Church building, now home to Century Church Theatre, dates back to 1906. Hillsburgh United Church was built in the 1926, after the partial amalgamation of the Presbyterian, Methodist and Congregationalist Churches in Canada.

The Anglican church was used from the 1890s until about 1918, then was eventually bought by Gray's father, who was a beekeeper. He converted the building to a honey extracting plant, which became known as the "honey house".

As with many communities, Hillsburgh's history is marked by major fires. Despite public pressure, there was still no fire department in the village in 1965 when St. Andrew's Church was destroyed by flames in February 1965. The organ was saved, but only the stone walls remained standing.

The church was rebuilt in just over a year, but people were tired of relying on the Erin fire department and minimal equipment in the village. "There was a hue and cry," said Gray. Many felt the church could have been saved if Hillsburgh had had its own fire department. In the fall of 1965, the township responded, stationing a fire truck in a building right beside the river. Gray was the first fire chief.

Obviously, these are just a few highlights from a rich local history. For those wanting to know more, Hillsburgh's Heyday by Patricia Kortland is available at the library. It was published in 1983 by Boston Mills Press, and while Gray notes that it has a number of inaccuracies, it is still a fascinating collection of photos and stories.

The "About Erin" section of the Town website ( has a lengthy township history article that deals with Hillsburgh, and if you type Hillsburgh History into the Google search, the first hit will be a village history, courtesy of the Carmichael family. The second is a history of the Exchange Hotel, one of several Hillsburgh articles on the Town website by historian Steven Thorning. Perhaps Ivan Gray will also publish his stories, for the enjoyment of future generations.