December 29, 2010

Dams should be part of Erin's business plan

As published in The Erin Advocate

If the dams in Erin village are going to stay in place for many decades to come, as it appears they will, they should become part of a plan to attract more visitors to the area. The West Credit River is a treasure that could be made more scenic, and more accessible to the public.

The Church Street Dam has ugly slabs of concrete at odd angles (some of them crumbling), broken safety railings, a heavy-duty guard rail and a steel girder sticking out of the water. The Town eventually needs to fix it up or tear it down.

With more frequent and severe weather events anticipated as a result of climate change, there will be extra strain on dams, so they cannot simply be ignored. I asked Bob Morris of Credit Valley Conservation (CVC) how important the village dams are for stormwater management.

"Not likely any significant role, especially if floods threaten structural integrity," he said. The goal is to control stormwater before it reaches the river. "Dams that trap sediment actually create sediment problems upstream and more erosion problems downstream."

The public land between the Church Street Dam and the Valu-Mart parking lot has potential as a park – an idea that has been around for years. It is an inexpensive project that the Town could undertake at any time, requiring some benches, waste containers and a sign. The trees could be thinned out to create a fantastic view of the river.

If the dam were eventually taken down, it could be replaced with stepped rocky ledges, which would still hold the water back somewhat, but create a series of pools that would also be quite attractive.

Whether the dam is there or not, the park could be an important hub in a network of trails that would bring more visitors to the village. There could be a route from that park upstream to Dundas Street, to the park on Carberry Street, across the south dam of Stanley Park and on up to the Trans-Canada Trail (Elora-Cataract).

Another trail could go from the Church Street Dam, possibly using part of the roadway to the old village landfill site, taking hikers up to the Height-of-Land Trail, south to the water tower and back down to William Street.

Obviously there are privately-owned lands involved. But if the Bruce Trail Association has built 1,000 kilometres of trails between Tobermory and Niagara-on-the-Lake by making deals with landowners, and acquiring land when it could, surely Erin can develop a few kilometres of trails.

CVC may be interested in acquiring more riverfront land, as it has done extensively in Caledon. There is possible funding for this sort of effort, but only if there is a plan. A committee of citizens will be working on that in the coming year.

Perhaps the most significant parcel of riverfront land for the long-term future of downtown Erin is the Mundell lumber yard. Owner Dana Mundell would like to move his lumber operation to the north end of the village and develop the vacated strip, anchored by the Planing Mill at the south, and the Grist Mill at Daniel Street. The Town, however, will not allow development there until a sewer system is built.

It is a long-term project, but the possibilities are exciting. There could be a boardwalk along the river leading to McMillan Park and a bridge over the river to the Woollen Mills Trail. There could be a cycling route, bypassing the Main Street traffic. There could be a pedestrian area, with a series of shops and restaurants facing the river.

Other towns have restored historic mills, making them successful as educational sites and commercial ventures. The belt-driven Planing Mill, with its ornate 19th century woodworking machines, is particularly important, since it dates back to 1838.

It is the last such mill in the Credit Valley watershed which can still be operated. People would line up and pay good money to see it in action. Perhaps it is pre-mature to put too many public expectations on the site, which is still part of a private business, but it has the potential to become a more prominent part of Erin's identity.

The mill is powered by water from the Charles Street Dam, through a flume that passes under Main Street. The same water could also generate electricity on a small scale. There are various arguments in favour of preserving this dam, which gave the village its start, but the existence of a functional mill is certainly the strongest.

December 22, 2010

Expensive upgrades could reduce impact of dams

As published in The Erin Advocate

When I think of dams, I think of farms. They do not look much alike, but they are both drastic human interventions in the environment, redirecting the power of nature to serve our needs. Dams and their mill ponds are often quite scenic, but unlike farms, they have become industrial relics.

There are more than 500 dams in the Credit River watershed, including several in the Erin-Hillsburgh area. Most were built in the mid-1800s as European settlers made a furious effort to tame the Ontario wilderness, building mills to saw up trees as they cleared the land and grinding grain from the new farms.

Many dams are still worth preserving, for historical, cultural and environmental reasons. But are we willing to pay millions of dollars in the long term to maintain and rebuild structures that have lost their original economic purpose? Will our descendants see the value in them 100 or 200 years from now?

The best options for Erin dams will have to be determined by dam owners, the local community and technical studies. What follows is simply a look at what changes may be possible to improve safety and water quality.

With the provincial government considering expensive new regulations for maintaining dams, I called Bob Morris, an aquatic biologist and Manager of Natural Heritage at Credit Valley Conservation (CVC), to get some background.

CVC has no direct authority over normal dam operations. The Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) is responsible for dams, but does not currently keep track of their maintenance. The CVC and MNR get involved when permits are needed for repairs or alterations. Dam owners are liable when a dam fails and causes damage to other landowners downstream or to the river environment.

"It is assumed that dam owners would take necessary precautions to prevent such an event but regulations are not likely to be applied until such a failure," said Morris.

"Dam owners must apply for a permit to repair or alter a dam and only then does MNR become aware of any safety issues. It would be unlawful to flush sediments downstream. Owners are responsible for maintenance, operations and surveillance of their dams."

The Charles Street and Church Street dams in Erin village were identified in 1997 as "structurally inadequate" by modern standards, but the CVC would not offer an opinion on their current safety or need for repair. The Church Street structure has some areas of crumbling concrete, but to an amateur observer it appears to be solid.

CVC can provide maintenance advice to dam owners to reduce damage to the environment and improve safety. Possible changes include fish ladders or rocky ramps, designed to enable migration of local fish species.

Ponds typically have higher water temperatures, which can be detrimental to the environment downstream. This can be offset by a "bottom draw", a separate pipe which in the summer would discharge some of the cooler water at the bottom of a deep pond.

Other pond problems include sediment build-up, high levels of nutrients and low levels of dissolved oxygen, leading to algae growth. Dredging and disposing of sediment is very expensive, and does not provide a long-term solution.

"CVC promotes the development of wetland communities in impoundments to improve some water quality parameters and habitat values," said Morris. "Dredging is generally discouraged."

Other possible changes include lowering a dam, which would leave the sediment in place and result in more wetland vegetation. Bypass channels can be used to divert a portion of the river flow around a dam, or even around a whole pond. Rocks can be used to build up the stream bed near a dam, or create a stepped series of riffles and pools.

If it is determined that a dam should be removed, the largest environmental concern is to avoid releasing sediment downstream during the project.

"Full removal of the dam and sediment would achieve full stream and valley restoration, that is best in many situations, but not always feasible in terms of economics and landowner objectives," said Morris. "The main issue seems to be public acceptance of losing a cultural feature and open water body that is different from a stream. Cost is also a big issue – but so are repairs or liability costs after a failure."

Could our dams be part of a plan to bring more tourists to the area? Are they essential for stormwater management? More on these issues next week.

December 15, 2010

New dam regulations too expensive for Erin

As published in The Erin Advocate

The Town of Erin could be forced to remove the Church Street Dam on the West Credit River if it cannot afford the cost of maintaining it under new regulations now being proposed.

The Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) is responsible for Ontario dams, but no requirements now exist to ensure safe management of the structures, which can deteriorate and become prone to failure.

If the proposed changes to the Lakes and River Improvement Act become law, dam owners could bear the cost of inspections, a long-term safety review and various plans for operation, maintenance and upgrades. Costs could range from $105,000 to $240,00 per dam – not including the capital costs of actual upgrades.

"These requirements will require significant staff resources that we do not have," said Water Superintendent Frank Smedley, who alerted Council to the proposed changes in a recent report.

"The initial, capital and ongoing cost will also be significant and may impact the tax rate. It is likely the Hulls Dam will need rebuilding due to being in poor condition. The cost is likely to be substantial. Decommissioning this structure may be the best option."

The Town owns the dam, near the end of Church Street West (also known as Hulls Dam), and has partial ownership of the Station Road Dam near the Hillsburgh Fire Hall, according to Smedley's report. There are also several privately-owned dams in the Hillsburgh area, in Stanley Park and at Charles Street in Erin village.

Smedley said it may be also be difficult to get approval to decommission a dam through the Environmental Assessment process, since it would change the existing ecosystem, create flooding risks and result in "significant negative implications to the surrounding properties".

Henry Trout built the Charles Street Dam in 1826 and operated a sawmill there, which was purchased by Daniel McMillan in 1829. McMillan built a series of mills, including the 1838 Oat Mill (now the Planing Mill) that helped drive the early growth of the village. In 1845, McMillan built a second sawmill, at the Church Street Dam he had constructed, then in 1849 used water diverted from that pond to power his Grist Mill on the other side of Main Street.

These two dams are significant artifacts of Erin history, and the ponds have become a key part of our environment and heritage. The loss of either would be a major disappointment to many residents.

Dana Mundell owns the Charles Street Dam mechanism, while the Town owns the bridge, and the road bed which helps hold back the water. He also owns the Grist Mill and the Planing Mill, which is still in operable condition, as well as water rights, granted by the Crown to mill owners for power generation.

While he wants to preserve the Charles Street Dam, Mundell is not prepared to spend huge sums on plans and maintenance programs. He has seen provincial dam initiatives come and go over the years, and he doubts that this one will have much impact.

"The dam is safe," he said. "I'm not going to lose any sleep over it. It held in Hurricane Hazel."

In 1954, Hazel blasted the Toronto area, killing 81 people. It destroyed a dam on the Humber River, washed out some 50 bridges in the region and swept dwellings into Lake Ontario. It spurred a major effort to improve storm water control.

Some minor concrete work was done on the Charles Street Dam a few years ago. The dam is lowered occasionally to flush out algae and improve water quality in the pond. If a major storm is expected, the pond level is lowered in advance to help absorb the flow.

In comments submitted to the MNR, Smedley said the proposed system "will create extreme financial hardships", and urged the government to set up initial and ongoing funding for small municipalities and private dam owners.

"These dams were typically installed many years ago and contributed to the growth and prosperity of our province as a whole. Now that these structures do not generate taxable revenue, the province which benefited from them in the past should pay for a significant percentage of their remediation."

He said communities downstream should support upgrades in Erin, since they benefit from the storm water control the dams provide, and urged the ministry to consult with the local stake holders before any new dam requirements become law.

So what should be done with Erin's dams? I will have more information in the coming weeks on their environmental impact and their role in the local economy.

December 08, 2010

Active Transportation Plan will get assets moving

As published in The Erin Advocate

Gill Penalosa cut to the heart of the matter last week, in a discussion of Erin's future transportation needs: How do we really want to live? Are we content with a car-dominated culture, or are we prepared to demand an infrastructure that values walking, cycling and other modes of human-powered locomotion?

"It's not about the money, it's about having the vision," said Penalosa, an internationally renowned liveable city advisor, speaking at a series of workshops throughout Wellington County. An audience that included business people, environmentalists, trails enthusiasts and town councillors attended the session at Centre 2000, part of an initiative to develop a Wellington Active Transportation Plan.

"It's time to build alliances, to get everybody working together – it might not be easy," said Penalosa. "We've got to develop a sense of urgency. We have to make the best quality of life – the general interest must prevail. We need to make walking and cycling a normal part of life."

Penalosa is the Executive Director of 8-80cities, a Toronto-based non-profit group that promotes healthy, people-oriented communities. Their name is based on the strategy of designing public areas that are not only safe and comfortable for able-bodied adults, but also for eight-year-olds and 80-year-olds. Check out

An Active Transportation Plan (a process that is already well-advanced in nearby regions) provides a guide for future development that could, for example, require adequate bike lanes when roads come up for reconstruction. It a joint initiative of the County, local municipalities and the Health Unit, which is concerned about rates of obesity, heart disease and other consequences of inadequate levels of physical activity.

Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph Public Health already sponsors the "WDG in motion" initiative, with a mandate to “create a culture of physical activity” in the region, according to their website, If you have ideas for the Active Transportation Plan, you can write to Karen Armstrong, In Motion Coordinator at the Health Unit: A consultant will be hired next year to work on the project.

It will be on a broad scaler than other related efforts, such as a Trails Master Plan for Erin, which is also being discussed. As with all such plans, they should not be used as an excuse for doing nothing until the plan is complete. If there is a consensus on the need for a certain project, it should proceed. The bias needs to be in favour of action.

Here are some of the ideas being floated to create a better environment for pedestrians and cyclists. The fact that some have been floating about for decades, but never achieved, does not make them less worthy of consideration.

• A bypass to take traffic, especially trucks, away from the downtown core of Erin village. This was mentioned by many participants at the workshop as a major factor in improving safety and quality of life in the village.

• Cross-walks or traffic lights to improve safety and discourage vehicle traffic.

• Improved off-street parking and elimination of some on-street parking to create a bike lane, with a concrete curb or barrier between the cars and the bikes.

• Improved trails, including a bridge over the river to link McMillan Park with the Woollen Mills Trail, a loop route on the water tower hill, a link from Stanley Park to Elora-Cataract rail trail, a loop including the rail trail in Hillsburgh and improved access to Barbour Field.

• Pedestrian-based areas of retail stores, restaurants and offices close to the downtown cores. Any significant redevelopment would require a sewage system.

• Bike lanes on selected rural roads to create a network among various destinations. Increased construction costs would be offset by the fact that wider roads last longer.

• A boardwalk along downtown sections of the river. The fact that some of this land is now privately owned would make such a project more complicated, but not impossible.

• Better bicycle parking areas in public places and at schools.

• Bus service to neighbouring municipalities.

• More parks and renewal of existing parks to make them more appealing to the public.

• More closures of downtown streets to vehicle traffic for special events on weekends.

• More local employment to reduce the rate of long-distance commuting.

Of course, in a town where the majority of residents live outside the urban areas and work elsewhere, cars and trucks will remain a necessity for many people. But we can still give higher priority to "active" transportation, and enjoy a better quality of life as a result.

December 01, 2010

Pantomime offers escape to land of silly surprises

As published in The Erin Advocate

If you are in the mood for grim tragedy, elegant plot progression or even subtle character development (and who isn't, sometimes), you should resist the urge to attend the current production at Century Church Theatre in Hillsburgh.

But (one of my favourite words), if you fancy a little escape to a land of heroes in peril, bad guys being like totally bad, buffoons falling down, cross-dressers cavorting, stunning surprises, silly songs, cunning disguises, men in tights and contrived happy endings, then come on down, or up, whichever you prefer.

The advice should be taken as biased, since I am in the cast of the pantomime Babes in the Wood, written by Bev Nicholas and directed by Martyn Worsnop, which takes a few liberties with the tale of Robin Hood. I play good King Richard, coming back from the Crusades to restore order at the bottom of page 42, kiss Maid Marion on page 45 and join the finale on page 48.

It is a small part, suitably proportioned to my available time and acting ability. Although I studied theatre at university, I didn't have the confidence to pursue it as a career and the newspaper business offered better prospects for steady pay. Now after thirty years, my involvement with drama normally extends only to the low-stress role of usher.

The Century Church panto has become a popular pre-Christmas tradition over the past six years. Shows continue this Friday night through Sunday afternoon. Tickets are available at local library branches or through the box office at 519-855-4586.

In preparation for my part I did a bit of research, though I use the term loosely since Wikipedia was involved. It seems Richard the Lionheart, crowned in 1189, does not meet today's high standards for a good leader of England.

He imposed a crippling tax to finance his war against the Muslims. He sold off public posts, like that of the Sheriff of Nottingham. Like most of the ruling class, he spoke only French, and during his ten-year reign spent only six months on English soil.

Though he was a skilled military commander, he failed to capture Jerusalem and was himself captured by his Christian enemies. His subjects were taxed again to raise the ransom, 65,000 pounds of silver, more than twice the Crown's annual income at the time.

For more in-depth research, I watched Robin Hood: Men in Tights, the Mel Brooks spoof on the legend. At the end, I was surprised to see Sir Patrick Stewart (Captain Jean-Luc Picard on Star Trek) playing the part of King Richard, reciting some of the same lines I had just learned. Borrowing is an important part of the panto tradition.

Some of the silly comedy that we see on-screen today has its roots in British pantomime, a family entertainment that evolved in the 19th century. It grew out of "Commedia dell’arte", a type of street theatre which came from Italy in the 16th century, featuring music, dance, buffoonery and set character types.

Pantomimes always have a melodramatic villain, a principal boy hero (played by a female) and a flamboyant dame (played by a male). The humour is a little on the saucy side, but never too rude for children in the audience.

Children are an important part of the cast, in this case as villagers, or merry men (and women). Getting kids involved in drama is a huge benefit for them. They learn how to have fun in a very disciplined way, helping create something of value. They have others counting on them to do their best, to make the show work.

They feel what it is like to take a good risk, to make mistakes and carry on, to make allowance for other people's mistakes, to be vulnerable with everybody looking at you and to discover that fear can be channelled into positive energy. After all, as Shakespeare reminds us in As You Like It, "All the world's a stage, And all the men and women merely players."

I am always amazed that shows come together as well as they do, considering the complexity of the undertaking – so many personalities, so many other commitments, so many lines and lyrics. It takes dedicated leadership, a network of folks hooked on the theatre lifestyle, a supportive community and the synergy created by "amateur" enterprise, that is, doing it for love instead of money.