October 08, 2013

Most committee members want to preserve pond

As published in The Erin Advocate

For most members of the special committee studying the Station Road dam in Hillsburgh, draining the mill pond would have more disadvantages than preserving it.

The committee met for the first time last week, and started off by dismissing as impractical a proposal by Mayor Lou Maieron to investigate construction of a new road along the Elora-Cataract Trailway, to bypass the current dam.

The rail bed would have to be widened – it is surrounded by wetlands, with a 40-foot drop in places. Additional property would have to be purchased or expropriated, especially to for proper intersections at Trafalgar Road and the existing Station Road.

Credit Valley Conservation (CVC), which owns the trailway, has pointed out that there are major hurdles to building a road there, since it was funded as a natural recreational area.

“The bottom line is that we still have to fix the dam,” said Road Superintendent Larry Van Wyck, who estimates a new bridge along the trail could cost $1.8 million.

The committee voted to set that proposal as the fourth and lowest priority, below the “do nothing” option, which is also not getting serious consideration since it does not meet provincial requirements.

The meeting was chaired by Councillor Barb Tocher, but she is abstaining from voting since she will participate in the decision by Town Council. The committee hopes to have a recommendation for council within a month or two.

Creation of the committee was approved in March. It is to consider the interests of the entire Town, including costs and environmental issues, and specifically the possibilities of the Town owning or co-owning the pond, making improvements to private property at public expense or entering a public-private partnership.

Any member having a conflict of interest in a matter before the committee is obliged to declare it at the beginning of the meeting and may not discuss or vote on that matter. No declarations were made. A closed session was held at the end of the meeting to discuss a property transaction.

Committee member Pauline Follett was the lone voice backing up the general policy of Credit Valley Conservation, which prefers to see the river revert to its natural condition when possible.

Removal of dams leads to better mobility for fish, and flowing water is cooler, with a higher oxygen level. Reverting to a stream would mean a major change in the local ecosystem that has developed over the last century and a half.

Member Victor Bayko said CVC has identified 81 species of birds using the pond, including ospreys and egrets, along with many fish, turtles and toads.

Follett said that while the area could be unsightly and stinky for two years, new foliage and wildlife would develop on the mudflats.

“It would look quite pretty,” she said.

Other committee members in attendance, including Ivan Gray, Jim Peavoy and Ron Moore, favoured keeping the pond as an attractive asset which promotes tourism, and pointed out the disruptions that draining would cause.

“If you drain that pond, it’s not going to be pretty,” said Bayko, who doubts the two-year time line. “It’s extremely sensitive in terms of cost.”

At a meeting last January, Councillor Tocher said that the Town had considered buying the property and giving it to the CVC, but decided not to when CVC said they would reduce the pond to a stream.

“This is a gem for the Town,” said Peavoy, who likes to skate on the pond. “To drain it doesn’t make sense.”

“My property value would drop,” said Ron Moore, who lives by the pond.

“The cost factor for draining the pond, in the end, is going to be more,” said Bayko, who also believes that the existing road is adequate.

Van Wyck told council recently that existing dam must either be upgraded to current engineering standards or decommissioned.

The full upgrading is estimated to cost $2.44 million, while decommissioning would cost $2.15 million (not including liability issues). Decommissioning would mean a less expensive bridge, but the environmental assessment would be more complex and expensive due to sediment and other issues. And because it involves a major change, the decommissioning process could be appealed by members of the public.

The bulk of the cost in each case is to rebuild the narrow road, including water and sewer lines, and the 96-year-old bridge, which was identified as in need of replacement as early as 1973.

While the Town owns the bridge, the road, and the earth below it that holds back the water, the structure the controls the water flow belongs to a private landowner. The Ministry of Natural Resources ordered that one of the six-inch boards holding back the water be removed, resulting in a lower water level this year.

There are now seven boards in place, 42 inches high, but there is 30 inches of sediment piled against them on the pond side.

If the Town builds a new bridge, it could include a new control structure that would take over from the existing one.

Emergency work was done last year to shore up the deteriorating dam, to make the road safe for traffic, but the MNR gave council until June 1, 2014 to not only decide what they want as a permanent solution, but complete any required environmental assessment.

There could be additional costs if landowners beside the pond claim that their riparian (shoreline) rights have been violated. The dam keeps the water table in Hillsburgh artificially high and it is estimated that 19 homeowners who rely on shallow wells would be at risk of losing water supply if the pond were drained. Many homes in Hillsburgh do not have municipal water.

“There are septics which are not working properly,” said Follett, who is concerned about shallow wells. “They must be polluted – there must be cross-contamination going on.”

A landowner may also have the right to make use of the drop in water from the dam – it could be capable of generating enough electrical power to supply a small number of homes.

There are several liability issues. If the current dam failed during a major storm, there could be major property damage downstream. But if the main pond reverted to a stream, some members believe a major storm could blow out two other dams a short distance downstream.

Dredging out sediment from a 30-acre pond would be an expensive and environmentally challenging project.

“The sediment would flow,” said Van Wyck. “It’s not going away, it’s just changing address.”

The committee will meet again on October 8 at the Town office, 7 pm, and the public is welcome.