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.