October 26, 2011

Making Erin more resilient in a harsher climate

As published in The Erin Advocate

An enthusiastic crowd gathered at the Legion hall last week, looking for ideas on how Erin can prepare for climate changes that are expected to alter our foliage and wear down our infrastructure in the coming decades.

The "Making Erin Greener Than Our Shamrock" event was co-sponsored by the Environmental Advisory Group of Erin (a Town committee) and the Climate Change Action Group of Erin (activists known for film nights and other awareness-raising events).

The guest of honour was farmer Don MacIver, the mayor of Amaranth Township (between Orangeville and Shelburne) and a senior climate change scientist with Environment Canada. As part of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, he and other federal scientists shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with Al Gore.

Mayor Lou Maieron welcomed MacIver, noting the seriousness of the challenge faced by our species: "If we don't adapt, we may become extinct," he said. "It's the generation coming behind us that we have to educate."

MacIver no longer speaks of stopping climate change – that battle was lost many years ago. He also leaves to others the on-going battle to mitigate the changes by reducing greenhouse gases to slow global warming – the current goal is a 17 per cent reduction below 2006 levels by 2021.

He focuses on the urgency of improving our defences against inevitably more severe weather, caused by the unforgiving mechanics of the atmosphere. Mean temperatures at Toronto (Pearson) are up about 2.7°C since the late 1800s, with minimum temperatures up about 4°C, though the pace of change varies by region. Compared to the 1961-1990 period, temperatures are expected rise another 2.6-4.0°C by 2050, with 6-15% more precipitation.

"Have you noticed there's less frost over the last few decades? You can grow more crops in the spring," he said. "You need to understand how your community has changed in terms of its warming profile, its precipitation profile, especially if you are going to grow trees. And remember the take-home message here, 1°C is significant for biological growth – 2 and 3 and 4 degrees warming, that's a complete disaster when it comes to native tree species."

While there may be less snow, the area in the lee of the Great Lakes is getting more precipitation overall. The weather variations are also more severe, with more dry spells and intense storms with flooding and high winds. Buildings, bridges, roads and dams will not last as long and will have to be built to higher standards.

"We are in tornado alley, they are expected to get more severe," he said, noting that as of 2015 the National Building Code will require more resilient construction. "It's not a question of whether you're going to get one, it's a question of when."

Disaster planning is becoming more important, including reserve funds for repairs, and a registry of vulnerable people who need to be checked on during ice storms or heat waves.

He said conservation authorities need to not only defend native species, but to engage in "planned adaptation", to support biodiversity while encouraging growth of desirable new species from the northern US that can flourish in our altered climate.

Environment Canada has two websites to help municipalities gather data on local atmospheric hazards (hazards.ca) and to develop local climate change scenarios (cccsn.ca). The federal government is planning to shut them down, however, and MacIver urges anyone concerned about this to write to Environment Minister Peter Kent (Minister@ec.gc.ca). MacIver is also concerned that many federal climate change scientists in contract positions have been notified that they could be laid off.

Making "green" changes at the local level is difficult, especially when we already have a hard time finding money to maintain or upgrade roads and infrastructure. Are we willing to pay higher taxes or accept fewer services in a harsher climate? Erin would love to have a greener reputation, as long as it could be done cheaply, or better yet, with money from other levels of government.

These are issues that we cannot leave entirely to scientists and politicians. They need to be directed. As organizer Heather Gentles said: "The purpose of tonight's meeting is to begin the process of re-imagining Erin in a more sustainable and resilient way. It's up to us, the residents of Erin, to begin planning."

Sarah Peckford, Environment Progress Officer for Caledon ("Greenest Town in Ontario") was a guest at last week's meeting, explaining their climate change planning process. Also speaking was Linda Sword, who described efforts by Eden Mills residents to make their community carbon neutral. Both of these projects will be the topics of future columns.

October 19, 2011

Fair Grounds perfect for Farmers' Market

As published in The Erin Advocate

It was an excellent Thanksgiving weekend, with plenty of turkey and family visiting, all the sunshine we could handle and a chance to do some late-season garden clean-up and machine maintenance, which I normally put off until it is uncomfortably cold outside.

The autumn colours were near their peak, so I looked about for a new hiking route. From the corner of Ballinafad Road and Rockside Road, just east of Winston Churchill Blvd., you can pick up an offshoot of the Bruce Trail.

Heading downhill towards Terra Cotta on the Rockside Side Trail, on the unopened road allowance of Heritage Road, the walking is easy. On the road, you'll pass Credit Valley Quarries, still producing the landscape and building sandstone that made the area famous in the late 1800s. Coming back along the rocky main trail, completing a 4.8 km loop, was a lot tougher – the whole hike was over two hours.

Then, of course, there was the Erin Fall Fair. I was running low on novelty belt buckles and T-shirts with rude sayings, so it was a chance to stock up.

But seriously, it was a great time – the social event of the year. From the beer at the Lions' tent to the Optimists' peameal on a bun, from the quiet crowd at the cow judging to the huge crowd at the tractor pull, there were plenty of choices and lots of people to recognize.

I particularly enjoyed the Crooner Show, with Erin native Monty Greig doing some energetic numbers in the Frank Sinatra / Dean Martin mode. Not an easy job wearing a black suit under a blazing hot sun. Check him out on Erin Radio, Sundays at 5 p.m., or at www.montygreig.com.

It was a pleasant surprise to see that the Erin Agricultural Society is considering the possibility of starting a Farmers' Market at the Fair Grounds next summer, from 3 p.m. to 8 p.m. on Fridays. They had a small survey near their food counter at the fair, where potential customers or vendors could show their interest.

The best option is to visit their nicely-redesigned website (www.erinfair.ca) and take a couple of minutes to complete a brief survey. This will help them decide if the venture is feasible. There is a section for customers, with questions about shopping habits and what products you would like to see offered.

There's also a section for farmers and other merchants, about the cost of renting space and the volume of sales required to make their participation worthwhile.

It seems like a good idea from many points of view. It's both practical and economical to make more use of an excellent facility with lots of space, in the heart of the village.

More and more people are seeing the value in buying locally, directly from farmers, but it needs to be convenient, with reasonable prices and selection. Farmers may be able earn a reasonable profit by selling produce themselves, without having to transport it a long distance.

There has to be sufficient variety for a market to succeed. It does not have to be just food, but there have to be clear criteria in order to maintain the right atmosphere. For example, hand-made local crafts may be appropriate, but mass-produced T-shirts may not.

A Farmers' Market could increase the size of the overall customer base, including both local residents and short-trip tourists, to the benefit of all village businesses. Erin has been building its brand as a destination, but it needs to offer more benefits if it is to take full advantage of the trend. Like it or not, we are in competition with the towns all around us, and they all have Farmers' Markets.

The greatest benefit, however, is not about business. Like the fair, a market can be a gathering place, where you expect to meet people that you know. It could become a valuable part of Erin's identity.

Starting a Farmers' Market is a lot of work. I hope that the Agricultural Society gets plenty of encouragement and tangible help from the community if they decide to proceed.

October 12, 2011

Shand Dam provides huge recreation area

As published in The Erin Advocate

It's off the beaten path for many people, so unless you have a passion for boating, waterskiing, fishing, hunting or hiking, the Shand Dam may be an unfamiliar landmark.

Located just 5 minutes west of the Erin border, along County Road 18, the dam was completed in 1942, the first in Canada built solely for water conservation purposes. It prevents the Grand River from regularly flooding the communities of Fergus and Elora just downstream, and helps regulate the flow for Kitchener-Waterloo and Cambridge.

The dam is 640 metres long and 26 metres high and can hold back 64 million cubic metres of water in Belwood Lake. It was the first project for the agency that became the Grand River Conservation Authority (GRCA).

I joined a hike there recently with some friendly people from the Elora Cataract Trailway Association. They have monthly outings from May through December, and the next one is November 6, starting in Elora. Go to www.trailway.org for more details. The trail itself, a former rail roadway that crosses the dam, is co-owned by the GRCA and Credit Valley Conservation.

The lake level varies considerably, reaching a high point in the first week of June, then dropping gradually until late summer. In dry periods, more water evaporates from the lake than flows into it.

"We couldn't keep it full if we wanted to – it's not supposed to be here," said Derek Strub of the GRCA, who gave us a tour.

Water levels are measured at least twice a day. The floodgates can be opened wide to allow maximum water flow, even if it means flooding downstream. Water cannot be allowed to "overtop" the dam, since it could quickly erode the earth that supports it, causing a catastrophic collapse.

The raw data for river flows, and water levels for reservoirs such as Belwood Lake, Guelph Lake and Conestogo Lake (south of Drayton in west Wellington County) are posted on the GRCA website.

Some communities take drinking water from the river and discharge waste into it. Normally it is treated waste, but untreated waste does reach the river due to storm overflows. Sufficient water flow has to be maintained to dilute that discharge for the benefit of communities downstream.

The dam offers a fine view of the Grand River valley, and provides the GRCA with a valuable source of income since one of its chutes drives a year-round hydro-electric generator. It puts about 700 kilowatts per hour into the Ontario grid, enough to power at least 250 homes. A stairway on the dam face provides access to the base.

Belwood Lake is quite attractive, but it is an active recreation spot rather than a protected nature zone. Unlike Guelph Lake, motorized boating is allowed. The lake is 12 km long, including 347 private seasonal cottages, with the community of Belwood near the north end and the 1,348-hectare Belwood Lake Conservation Area to the south.

There is no charge if you just want to hike or cycle through on the rail trail, but for other activities, admission is $5.25 for those over 14, $2.75 for ages 6 to 14, and free for 5 and under.

There are 3.3 km of additional trails, a picnic area, and a one-acre spring-fed quarry with a sandy beach for swimming, including a shallow section for younger kids. Water quality is tested weekly in the summer, but there is no lifeguard patrol. The park is also home to the Belwood Lake Sailing Club.

Motorboats and ice fishing huts can be rented, and there are two public launch area. The lake is known for its pike, smallmouth bass and perch. Below the dam, the water is cool enough to support brown trout. There is a fishing pond for kids, stocked with rainbow trout and bass.

There are 243 hectares set aside for hunting deer, turkey and waterfowl, with a permit costing $15 a day or $120 for the season.

You can rent kayaks, but not canoes. I have found it better to paddle in the narrower upstream area of the lake where you can barely hear the jet-ski engines, and there is more chance of seeing wildlife such as heron.

Belwood is a day use area, so if you want to camp, check out Highland Pines, a private campground on the north shore. It is not far from the Belwood Transfer Station, where Erin residents now drop off their bulky or hazardous waste.

October 05, 2011

Not much new on Erin at All Candidates Meeting

As published in The Erin Advocate

About 50 people came out to the All Candidates Meeting hosted by the Optimist Club of Erin on Tuesday last week, instead of watching the provincial leaders slug it out that night in the TV debate. It was a friendly affair, with a few good ideas tossed about, but not much to influence voters who care about local issues.

Participating were Progressive Conservative MPP Ted Arnott of Fergus, who has held the seat for 21 years, Liberal Moya Johnson of Georgetown, a nurse and Halton Hills town councillor, and New Democrat Dale Hamilton, a playwright, community worker and former Eramosa councillor. Green Party candidate Raymond Dartsch, a community nurse from Eden Mills, was not present.

Actually, it would have been better to hold the meeting on an earlier date, so people could read a report in the newspaper in advance of the vote. Many won't get this issue by mail until tomorrow, election day. The proceedings were broadcast on FM 88.1 CHES, Erin Radio.

"This is a chance to change to a government you can trust," said Arnott. "Ambulance response times have been a huge interest for me, and I have gone to bat for you on that issue in the legislature."

Hamilton, who came a close second to Arnott in the 1990 election that produced an NDP government, made an appeal for support to backers of the Green Party, based on "compatible" environment policies. "The NDP offers real change to the status quo," she said.

Hamilton agreed that Erin needs better ambulance response times. She said her party would cut ambulance fees and free up more dollars by continuing the Liberal plan to upload costs from municipalities.

"We are proposing to give the provincial ombudsman oversight over hospital and health spending, to be sure patients are respected, and certainly a case of that would be reasonable response times for rural areas," she said.

Johnson was eager to remind people of the Mike Harris PC government.

"I've lived through times when health care encouraged and supported, and times when it was cut to the bone," she said. "After all the progress we've made, rebuilding the health care system, we can't go back there, to those days."

She was not familiar with "exactly how many ambulances" Erin has, but said that in general, as the province continues to upload costs from the municipalities, "more funds will be available to improve ambulance service".

Arnott said he has spoken with the Minister of Health about the problem, in which the City of Guelph has only been willing to station an ambulance in Erin for part of each day. "The provincial government needs to get involved to ensure the response times are adequate," he said, and urged Guelph to be a "good neighbour".

Candidates were asked about support for the Town if it is obliged to install sewers. Johnson was unaware of Erin's situation and mistakenly said that all municipalities are obliged to provide sewage treatment. She said Erin would have to apply for any available funding, while Arnott said he would actively promote such a bid. Hamilton identified it as a development issue, saying Rockwood had succeeded in restricting new housing to within existing urban boundaries.

There were questions on whether the province should subsidize Erin residents if they are forced to hook up to the Town water system, and whether the system should undergo more scrutiny.
None of candidates made any commitment or showed any understanding of this local dispute, although Hamilton said she would look into it. They talked instead about water safety, uploading, infrastructure funding and eagerness to collaborate with municipalities.

The issue of Hydro Smart Meters arose, and Arnott promised to continue pushing for solutions to the technical problems that have led to erratic electricity bills for Stanley Park residents.
Regarding farms that need power 24 hours a day, Arnott said his party would make time-of-use meters optional, allowing some customers to benefit from a flat rate. Hamilton also supported flexible billing systems, as part of a broader plan to reduce risk for farmers. Johnson spoke of the expensive investments required to improve the Hydro system, and said the government already supports farmers in other ways.