Sunday, June 28, 2009

Coxwell Sanitary Sewer Update

Sewer grate c1959. Located near the mouth of Taylor-Massey Creek and demarcates the merging of 3 sewer mains into the Coxwell Sanitary Sewer. Warning: the odour from this access tunnel is very strong and shouldn't be approached by those with a weak stomach!

After a flurry of fairly high profile news items earlier this year, the story of the Coxwell sanitary sewer problems has fallen off the radar. This does not mean that work has slowed down. Far from it. Toronto Water has been very busy with a wide range of activities from setting up monitoring devices to developing contingency plans in the event of a failure of the sewer to plans that will lead to eventual repair of the sewer.

There are two foreseeable outcomes. The first is that the sewer fails in the near future which would have dire consequences for the Don River. The second (and much more likely) course of events is that Toronto Water successfully completes repairs on the sewer main and everything works out OK.

Let me start with the bad news scenario. Since the damage to the sewer was discovered, the city has taken steps to make plans in the event of a failure. No one knows when the damage to the sewer occurred or how extensive the damage is. Nor are they sure how long the sewer will last. It could fail today or it could last another 60 years. Given this situation city staff have to plan for the worst. In the event of a failure the plan is to divert the sewage into the Don River. The flow in the pipe is about 6 m3/s or about 4 times the normal flow of the Don River. The effluent would flow all the way down the river to the harbour. The plan calls for the effluent to be treated in the Keating Channel which would remove the worst of the flow but the remaining water would be highly polluted.

The effect of this would be catastrophic. All oxygen would be removed from the river and everything now living in the river would die. Water in the harbour would be highly anaerobic and E. coli levels would be through the ceiling. The combined sewer and river flow would be contained in the river channel but a rainstorm during this flow would likely cause the river to overflow the banks causing sewage laden waters to flood the lower Don Valley. No matter how you look at it, a collapse would be a major environmental disaster.

In the meantime work is underway to build a bypass around the damaged pipe. Two options are being evaluated, a temporary bypass and a permanent bypass. The temporary bypass would involve constructing one or more pipes above ground. The pipes would extend from the bottom of the valley near the mouth of Taylor-Massey Creek up to the corner of Coxwell and O'Connor. A shaft would be dug at that corner back down to the pipe. The sewer contents would be pumped up the side of the valley and back down the shaft to reenter the pipe downstream from the damaged section.

The permanent bypass solution would tunnel underground roughly parallel to the existing pipe and create a diversion around the damaged section. Either solution would allow engineers to enter the existing pipe to initiate repairs. The timeline for both options is 9-12 months and would cost about $30 million. The temporary would take a little less time but would be more damaging to the natural landscape of the valley. Also the temporary solution allows for only one oppotunity for repairs. Since the cost for both options is roughly similar and the timelines are not that far apart, city staff are leaning towards the permanent solution.

It is good to know that the city is taking the situation very seriously and I am confident that the plans in place are sufficient to produce a positive outcome. I rate the possibility of failure of the sewer to be very low. I am reasonably certain that by the end of this project we will again have a working sewer and the Don River will continue to flow without the added complication of input from the Coxwell sewer.

For anyone who wants additional information on this subject, you can view Toronto Water's slideshow presentation to the Public Works Committee from January 2009.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Sunday Hike in the Don

This summer I am leading a series of hikes in the Don. This past Sunday was the second of six hikes. It started at York Mills and Bayview and traversed open sections of Wilket Creek, part of the West Don and all the open sections of Burke Brook. It was a nice day and 50 people showed up! Shepherding this many people is a challenge and things slowed down considerably along Burke Brook which had some very muddy sections including a mudslide. Getting around these areas was very time consuming. Nevertheless, everybody enjoyed themselves and I received several positive reviews.

My next hike will be on Sunday July 5, 1 PM starting at the entrance of Victoria Park subway station. You can check the Toronto Bruce Trail Club website for details. Look under urban hikes. Here a few pictures from the day's travels.

Starting the hike in a park at York Mills and Bayview.

Walking through Windfields Park.

Some ducks were also enjoying the fine weather.

We passed through the Toronto Botanical Gardens where many things were in bloom.

Getting down a muddy slope was a little tricky but we persevered.

Lending a helping hand across a plank bridge.

Making our way across a recent mudslide took some time.

We also went through Alexander Muir Gardens in the Blythwood Ravine.

Enjoying a relaxing pint at the end of the hike at the Safari Bar and Grill. About a dozen hikers persevered with me to the end.

Monday, June 22, 2009

How Will the City Strike Affect the Don?

By now, most of you know that Toronto's municipal workers have gone on strike. I won't bore you with the details, suffice to say both sides have dug in their heels and it's anybody's guess as to how the impasse will be resolved.

How will this affect the Don? In the short term there is one impact that I know about. The city's stewardship program has been suspended. In the Don Valley there are about six sites where volunteer stewardship will be curtailed until after the strike, including the new Goulding Wetland where I lead a team. During the last strike in June 2002, I was leading a team at the Don Valley Brick Works. I recall that we still went out but we brought our own equipment since we didn't want to 'break the strike' by using city equipment. Times have changed since then. The program is bigger and more formalized so performing stewardship now is more problematic. While I am concerned about the sites the impact should be minimal in terms of the overall length of the current labour dispute.

Another area that may affect the Don is illegal dumping. Since there is no regular garbage pickup there is the potential for people to dump their garbage. Some isolated areas of the Don (and other city ravines) are prime locations for this activity. Hopefully the strike will not be long enough for this to be a big problem. If you do see any dumping in the Don I'd be interested in finding out about it so please leave me a comment or send me an email at donwatcher (at)

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Goulding Wetland Official Opening

Richard Ubbens, head of Toronto Forestry speaks to the gathering

Last Friday June 12 was the official opening of Goulding Wetland. Although construction finished last fall and plantings have been going on ever since, politicians and staff needed to have an official get together to pat each other on the back and congratulate themselves on a job well done. Local city councillor, Janet Davis was there. Janet is one of the Don's biggest supporters. She has been a long time supporter of Friends of the Don East and an outspoken advocate for Taylor-Massey Creek issues. There were also several staff members and a bevy of school kids who were there to do a planting after the ceremonies.

I wasn't there because I am now gainfully employed but James McArthur of FODE was and he took a couple of pictures which he has gracefully donated for this blog posting.

School kids work at a planting after the hoopla

I have already started a stewardship team at this site so I have a personal connection to the wetland. The team has been busy removing non-native invasives and I expect to be busy for the rest of the summer with maintenance and monitoring activities. If you are interested in joining the team you can contact the city coordinator at and let her know that you are interested in volunteering at the wetland.

A turtle appeared on a log for the opening - a good omen for the wetland

New interpretive sign at the wetland

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Turtles on the Path

Snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina) seen in Crothers' Woods

What should you do if you encounter a turtle on the trail (or the road)? Marnie at Beechwood Wetland and the Toronto Star have mentioned recent encounters with turtles. Mid June is a critical time for Ontario turtles because it is the one time of the year that turtles leave their aquatic homes to go and search for a place to lay their eggs. Chances are that if you see a turtle on the trail it is going to be female. It will either be burdened with eggs in search of a nesting site or on its way back to its home in the pond.

There are 8 species of turtles native to Ontario and six of them are listed as being threatened or endangered. The biggest threat to them occurs at egg laying time because they often cross roads while travelling on land. Because they are slow moving they are vulnerable to road traffic and often get hit. This is a tragedy because not only does the mother die but if she is carrying eggs her future offspring are lost too.

Turtles like to dig a nest in soft sand. However they often can't find this so they might try digging in gravel beside a road or a path. Depending on the species there might be 5-40 eggs in a clutch all about the size of a ping pong ball. Turtle eggs take about 60-80 days to hatch. Many eggs do not make it because they are a favourite food of foxes and raccoons. In places like Toronto with its large raccoon population, it is estimated that over 99% of clutches are predated.

Turtles, especially snapping turtles have a bad reputation as being aggressive. However this behaviour is evident only on land during the brief time they they travel during the egg laying season. Once back in their aquatic habitat, they are shy and docile and will often swim away when approached by a wading or swimming human.

So getting back to the question: what to do when you encounter a turtle on the trail? Please be respectful, keep your distance and wait for them to cross the path. If they are in danger of passing traffic, you might try be a good traffic cop and tell other trail users to slow down. Please don't pick them up as they might bite you. If the turtle is on a busy road, you could try to hurry them along but please keep your contact with them to a minimum. They are after all wild creatures and may see your help as a threat.

If you are interested in finding out more about Ontario's turtle species, the Toronto Zoo's Adopt-a-Pond program has a good website that provides a lot of information.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Travelling Through the Upper East Don

Last Sunday I led a hike through parts of the upper east Don River. Since this isn't on my regular travel route I decided to take a look at the route prior to the hike. The trip up to the hike starting point at Don Mills Rd and McNicoll Ave. was eventful only with respect to the bus ride. I wanted to take my bicycle but I wasn't looking forward to the bike ride up to North York. So I decided to take the bus from Pape Station. Taking the bus with a bike is a little different than usual because I used the bike racks on the front of the bus for the first time. I was a little apprehensive but putting the bike on the bus was a snap and once in the rack it hardly moved at all.

But I digress. The trip along the path through the East Don Parklands was largely uneventful except for my discoveries at the new wetland. I will tell the rest of the trip through the photos I took along the way.

Sign at the trailhead. The sign tells the history of the area including a little bit about the early settlements of Oriole, Flynntown and German Mills.

German Mills Creek

Interpretive sign at the mouth of German Mills Creek. Some idiot placed the sign on the wrong side of the creek because it actually faces the East Don, not German Mills Creek. If you look closely, someone else has helpfully pencilled in a correction.

Mouth of German Mills Creek where it meets the East Don River. Note the muddier waters of the Don can be seen meeting the clearer waters of German Mills Creek.

A Black Cherry tree (Prunus serotina) in flower at Cummer Avenue

The Black Cherry flowers up close

A messy cluster in the tree denotes the lair of the Forest Tent Caterpillar (Malacosoma disstria)

New wetland just south of Cummer. Created last fall, it has been the site of plantings and other restoration work this year. A good place to visit.

Tadpoles in the pond. As a boy I called them pollywogs. Zoopolis has also blogged about these critters.

As I was looking at the tadpoles, I flushed a Killdeer out of some tall grass. I stopped to investigate and found its nest containing four speckled eggs. I left quickly after taking the pictures to minimize my disturbance.

A new bridge was built this year to connect the Don River path with Newtonbrook Creek. A very useful connection.

An old pond near Newtonbrook Creek. Note the non-native Yellow Iris (Iris pseudacorus) growing beside the pond.

The very native Canada Anemone (Anemone canadensis) growing beside the path.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Moving Forward on Toronto's RAP

Bob McDonald presents at the Gladstone Hotel

I attended a meeting on May 27 for the Toronto Remedial Action Plan (RAP). The focus of the meeting was to announce the publication of the 2007 Progress Report. This might seem a little late but given past experience with RAP this is pretty recent. The RAP process amasses quite a bit of data so compiling and analyzing it all takes some time.

Toronto's RAP is one of about 43 areas of concern around the shores of the Great Lakes. There are 26 in the US and 10 in Ontario and 5 shared. Remedial Action Plans first began in the mid 1980's. Since then only 2 sites have been delisted - Collingwood Harbour and Severn Sound. Toronto's RAP still has some ways to go.

The launch party was held at the Gladstone Hotel which was quite a swanky spot for such a mundane topic. Free hors d'oeuvres and DJ'd music were an interesting addition (unfortunately the beer was not free). Another surprise was that the meeting was emceed by CBC's environmental reporter Bob McDonald. There were presentations by a number of people from the TRCA, the city and Environment Canada all of whom have a stake in the RAP pie. Bob as emcee kept these presentations on track and not too long. Only one presenter, Michael D'Andrea went overtime.

After the presentation there was a chance to ask questions. One of the questions I asked was "When do you think Toronto will be delisted as an area of concern?" No one had a quick answer and the presenters seemed stymied. Eventually Adele Freeman from the TRCA picked up the microphone and said she hoped to see an end to the process in 15-20 years. I said I'd hold her to that and get back to her in 2024. She laughed and said she might not be around that long herself.

The 2007 progress report called Moving Forward is just that, a description of progress to date and current conditions. There are no big announcements or surprises but is more a collection of small but interesting items. The report is just one of a series of interim reports that have been produced that talk about ongoing initiatives.

One must place these reports in the current environmental context. Many of the problems that resulted in the RAP process being started are decades old and the quick fixes were all done in the first years of RAP. The remaining problems are all complex and require long-term and sustained efforts in order to resolve. For example, one of the biggest projects that RAP initiated was the Wet Weather Flow Management Master Plan. This project has a 25 year lifespan which will spend $1 billion dollars. It only started in 2003 and has 18 more years to go.

How does all this affect the Don? The Don River watershed is just one part of the Toronto RAP which extends from Etobicoke Creek to the Rouge River. The problems that affect the Don are also evident to a greater or lesser extent in each of the five other watersheds in Toronto. One hopes that if regional problems are solved or at least controlled, they will improve the conditions of the Don.

So far the report is only available in paper. I haven't seen any online edition yet but if I do I will make the link available through the blog.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

My New Job

Since the start of May, I have been employed in a new job. It's more of a summer job since I am still have one more year of university but it is directly related to my interests in the natural environment. The job is with a private company called Urban Forest Associates (UFORA for short) and they specialize in urban forestry and natural habitat restoration. In some respects it is a landscaping company but they do it with an eye to restore forests and ravine properties that have been degraded by unsustainable uses and in some cases neglect. Many of the clients are private property owners who have properties at the edges of ravines and want their property to have a more natural look. This is done by removing non-native trees and other plants and replanting with native species. The company takes extra care to ensure that the actual plants are sourced from local seeds and that trees and shrubs purchased from nurseries are not some cultivar or hybrid that they sometimes try to sell as a wild native species.

The work is similar to what I have been doing for the past 10 years as a volunteer so I am very happy with the job, especially now that I am being paid to do it. However the volunteer work tends to last only 2-3 hours per day and now I am doing it 7-8 hours a day, 5 days a week. It is physically demanding work and I am slowly adjusting to it. My previous jobs in the IT biz and my school work was quite sedentary and I am taking some time to adjust to it. This means that I am finding less time for blogging so this is the main reason why my posting to Don Watcher has declined recently.

Fear not loyal blog followers, I am still taking pictures and noting changes in the Don. It's just a matter of finding the time to write about it. I hope to get back to a a regular blogging routine soon.