Thursday, December 09, 2010

Death Knell for DJs

Sign posted at entrance to Dirt Jumps

Directly east of the North Toronto Sewage Treatment Plant is an area locally known as the "Flats". This area has been used for several years by the cycling community as a location for stunt cycling with BMX style bicycles. It is a popular cycling destination and has the advantage of being relatively secluded and off the beaten path. In addition the sandy soil makes it perfect for building dirt jumps which gives it the nickname DJs. One big downside for the site is that it only accessible by crossing the CN railroad tracks. While there are constructed pathways that allow you to get underneath the railroad bridges at either end of the Flats, the main problem for the city is that four-letter word: liability. If someone were to get seriously injured there is no way to get emergency vehicles in there. An injured person would have to be carried out.

This issue was identified in the Crothers' Woods Trail Management Strategy and since 2007 has been identified as a place to be shut down. Some wheels turn really slow in the city so it was only recently that the decision was made and this week signs were posted in the vicinity. Early next week, work crews will move in and dismantle all the constructed wooden material at this site and the nearby Dirt Camp. It is not clear but I imagine that the earthen jumps will also be levelled rendering the site unusable for cycling activities.

I've been somewhat ambivalent about this site. I know it impinges on potentially valuable habitat and the excavated holes have no doubt damaged tree roots and prevented any type of natural regeneration from happening. Still the presence of this site and its popularity means that there is a demand for this activity in the city. I always felt that it was better to leave this site alone until other facilities were constructed to replace it. Sadly, no such facilities have been built nearby. The closest official site is Bayview and Finch, not easily accessible by local kids. If this site is shut down then some other site will no doubt spring up somewhere else in the valley.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Three Bridges

I went for a ride in through E.T. Seton Park yesterday and took this photo. An interesting perspective where you can see three bridges. The first is the new footbridge across the West Don River, the second is the old arched bridge going over the old channel and the third is the CP railway bridge in the background.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Another Blog for the Don

I just received word of a new group fighting to preserve a section of the West Don River in Vaughan in the vicinity of Highway 407. The group called Save Concord West is trying to get a proposed new GO station moved out of the valley. They have also discovered a rare an endangered Blanding's Turtle living in the area. Check out their web site.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Wilket Creek: Troubled Watercourse

Map of Wilket Creek (click to enlarge)

Wilket Creek is a tributary of the Don River. Its headwaters (now buried) were once in the Willowdale and Sheppard area of North York. It appears above ground northwest of Bayview and York Mills and continues open until it joins the West Don River near Leslie and Eglinton Avenue East. Except for a short section just north of Lawrence Avenue East the creek travels through public parks. There are two ponds, one in Windfields Park and the other in Edwards Gardens. Both are manmade and kept in place by small dams. The most well known section is the Wilket Creek ravine that runs between Edwards Gardens and the Don River. This section is also the most problematic and in recent years has been hit hard by flooding.

Recently signs have appeared at the entrances to the Wilket Creek ravine. The signs talk about the start of a geomorphic assessment of the creek. In lay person's language they are going to study the way water flows through the river channel and why flooding is causing damage to the trails and bridges.

The Toronto Region Conservation Authority put the study out to tender and a local company called Parish Geomorphic won the bid. They will study the creek and make recommendations for improvements. For all this they will be paid about $300,000. This may sound like a lot of money but it you want scientific expertise it costs money. Parish did a similar study on Burke Brook a little upstream so they have local experience.

The study will map out the creek in detail and will describe physical conditions of the creek bed and underlying soils. It will also map the natural water input as well as the manmade stormwater sewers that feed into the creek. It is the latter that is the main culprit for flooding. Most of the water that falls on the surrounding neigbourhoods ends up in the creek. When it rains heavily this is a lot of water. In August 2005, July 2008, and July 2009 there was so much water flowing in the creek that it destroyed the pedestrian bridges and obliterated the walking path through the ravine.

Woody debris choking river channel under a bridge in July, 2008

Winter 2009. Note the wide channel and scoured banks

It's a well known fact that too much water is flowing through Wilket Creek during storms. I'm a little puzzled by the need for a full blown study and I can't see that they are going to come up with anything really new. Basically what they will find is that Wilket Creek is a typical urban stream with several storm sewers that can dump large amounts of stormwater into the creek very quickly. All this water overwhelms the creek and the fast water overflows its small channel. The small pedestrian bridges and the cheap asphalt paths are no match for all this water and are easily damaged.

There's an easy sounding solution for all this - reduce the stormwater flows into the creek. Remove the excess water and the problem is solved. Unfortunately, diverting the stormwater means very expensive underground diversion to storage tanks and pipes. Building this will take considerable finances and political will.

So perhaps the purpose of the study is to give someone sufficient reason to build these systems. In order to spend millions of dollars on vital infrastructure you need an expensive study done by a reputed company and not just the opinions of concerned volunteer citizens who know the area but don't have the credentials to back them up.

Sign posted at mouth of Wilket Creek

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Fall Scenes

A sumac grove in Earl Bales Park showing its bright red colour

Fall is one of my favourite times for walking and bicycling in the Don. The weather is moderate and the irritating bugs are few. Not only that but the colours along the ravine slopes are beautiful at this time of the year.

There are several places in the Don where you can see good vistas. Besides the places mentioned in these photos you can also visit Sunnybrook Park, Moccasin Trail Park and the East Don Parklands.

Yellows and Oranges showing in E.T. Seton Park

More colours in Crothers' Woods

Thursday, September 30, 2010

311 and the Don

Tree down across path in Moore Park Ravine

One of the big problems with the Toronto's city bureaucracy is that is, well, big. There are approximately 50,000 employees doing a multitude of tasks that keep the city running smoothly (more or less). There is a raft of divisions and departments from Parks and Recreation to Culture, Social Services, Transportation, to name a few. Each of these divisions are subdivided in complex ways that make them labyrinthine and hard to connect. In addition there is not enough communication between them which makes some tasks even more difficult. I have heard these divisions describes as silos, an apt description.

Unfortunately for the Don, many of these departments have some responsibility tied to the Don Valley for different aspects of the valley. For example, Transportation deals with the Don Valley Parkway, Works deals with sewers and water, Culture deals with relics such as the Don Valley Brick Works, and Social Services deals with the homeless. Not the least of which is Parks, Forestry and Recreation which has maybe the largest responsibility. Even within Parks it is sometimes difficult to find who is responsible for something because of geography. The Don River acts as a natural border for jurisdictions. There might be two different park supervisors responsible for the west and east banks of the river. Not only that but these people are often moved periodically which makes it even more difficult to get in touch with someone.

In comes the 311 call centre. Now with a simple phone call or email, the call centre can direct your query to the right department or person in order to solve a problem. As an example, in August I came across a tree fallen down over the path in the Mud Creek ravine. I took a picture of the situation and sent it with an email to 311 describing where it was and that it should be removed. A couple of weeks later, I went back and it was cleared away.

This is just to let you know, you can do the same. For simple things like a tree fallen down or garbage dumped in a park a call or an email to 311 is all it takes. If you do make a call, be sure to get a reference number. That way you can follow up with your request to see what action is being taken.

Same place a few weeks later

The tree in question

Monday, August 16, 2010

Fuel Spill in the Don

Map of fuel tank location and nearby stormwater outlet on Don River

On Sunday a fuel spill occurred that emptied into the Don River. What happened was that a construction crew excavating behind a Staples depot on Vanderhoof Avenue uncovered a large fuel tank buried in the ground. No one knew it existed but local historians suspect that it was a leftover relic from the days when the site was used as an airfield. The Leaside Aerodrome closed in the 1930s but they left the tank buried in the ground, forgotten until now.

In the process of digging up the tank it was ruptured and the contents exposed to the air. It was scheduled to be pumped out on Monday but a torrential downpour on Sunday caused the fuel to flow out of the tank. The fuel emptied into a nearby sewer which quickly led to a storm sewer outlet on the Don River. Fortunately a passerby noticed the problem and the spill was quickly contained. Today as I was passing by I saw the cleanup efforts well underway.

Many people assume that the Don is polluted and they are right. It used to be that the problems came from industrial sources like this but those days are long gone and spills are few and far between. Most of the pollution comes from stormwater runoff. Whenever there is a big rainfall (like this weekend), the rain is quickly diverted into storm sewers which empty directly into the river. The rain picks up detritus from our roads and lawns. In addition, in the Lower Don sanitary sewage mixes with storm water and the combined effluent adds to the rainwater runoff.

If there is any benefit to this fuel spill it is that it highlights the connection between the sewer grate on your street and pollution in the Don River. Think about that next time you want to soap down your car in the driveway. Now you know where that soapy water will end up!

Backhoe lifting derelict fuel tank

Workers in Don River putting a boom in place to contain the spill

Closeup of the stormwater outlet. You can see some of the oily slick on top of the water.

Tanker trucks being used to vacuum up the oil

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

New Road for the Don

Access road under construction

If you've passed by the mouth of Taylor-Massey Creek recently you will have noticed a considerable amount of construction activity. In addition to the sewer project that is taking up part of the parking lot in Taylor Creek Park there is also another related project occurring on the north side of the creek. Toronto Water is busy blazing a new road up the East Don (see map). The purpose of this road is to allow them to access to maintenance wells so that they can access a sewer that runs through the East Don ravine. The sewer was built in the 1960s when the city was more concerned about building things than about natural spaces.

The sewer which is now about 50 years old requires some monitoring and possible maintenance. In order to inspect the sewer they need to lower a camera mounted on a robot into the sewer so they can look inside. The monitoring equipment and the robot are quite substantial thus a road is required to get it to the access grates.

The road is following the path of an old construction road laid down by the TRCA in 1999 so that they could do some slope remediation. The new road will go past the slope and extend another 400m east alongside the river.

Eventually the road will be used by Parks to establish a trail through the Charles Sauriol Preserve that will link up with parks further north such as Milne Hollow and Moccasin Trail.

Restored part of old construction road. New armour stone is on right, river is on the left

Another section showing riprap lining bank

Some of the construction vehicles parked in the staging area just north of Taylor-Massey Creek

Monday, July 19, 2010

First Resident of the Don

Groundhog spotted at Lakeshore Blvd. East and Don Roadway

I was going by the mouth of the river last week just where Lakeshore Blvd. East crosses the river at the Don Roadway. Immediately south of the bridge the Don River enters the Keating Channel. Just at the southwest corner of the intersection I spotted a groundhog (Marmota monax) coming out of a hole from underneath the bridge abutment.

There is a bit of debate whether the Don River ends here or whether the mouth is actually where the Keating Channel enters the harbour west of Cherry Street. The effects of the harbour and the lake water actually extends further up the channel to around Eastern Avenue. To my mind the Keating Channel right turn elbow demarcates the end of the river. Therefore this groundhog would be living in the place closest to the mouth of the river.

I've seen groundhogs in several places in the Don Valley. They are a pretty common species and have adapted to urban conditions. Groundhogs are herbivores so I guess the grassy roadside next to the Don Roadway makes for some pretty easy living. This one was pretty nonchalant and sat by his hole watching me for 10 minutes as I snapped several pictures. As I fiddled with my camera looking for the video setting, it scurried into its den so I only have a few still photos from the encounter.

Friday, July 02, 2010

Lower Don Sign II

Latest cleaning job gets rid of most graffiti

I am kind of ambivalent about interpretive signs in the Don these days. At first I thought these were a great idea. Educate the public, raise awareness about the natural environment, etc. Unfortunately not everyone is so high-minded. These signs have attracted an unusual amount of vandalism in the form of graffiti tags. Some of the signs have become so bad they are unreadable. The city does not have the resources to keep up with the maintenance and removal has been haphazard at best. The result is a sad collection of ugly signage in the Don.

The sign on the Lower Don Trail just north of the Riverdale Park footbridge has been the unlucky target for the worst of the tagging. After a couple of attempts at getting the city to clean it up and at least one time when I cleaned it myself, I have given up on this sign. That was 16 months ago. However, as I passed by it yesterday I noticed that it has been cleaned up once again. Most of the paint has been removed and the sign is now legible again (although you can still see it has been through the wars).

Sadly I expect this sign will be covered in another month with a new coating of graffiti. It may be time to rethink our signage strategy for the Lower Don.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Path in Crothers' Woods

Path in Crothers' Woods

Since I've been too busy it seems to do much blogging, I thought I'd fill in some dead space with some pictures from my archives. This picture is from Crothers' Woods June 2009. I liked the foliage that has grown up beside the path which was built in 2008. Can anybody guess where this is?

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Spring Wildflowers

Here's a few pictures of wildflowers I have seen in the Don Valley this spring. All of the pictures except the Spring Beauties are from the Lower Don and neighbouring tributary ravines.

Canada Mayflower

Wild Sarsaparilla

Virginia Waterleaf

May Apple


Spring Beauties

Trout Lily

Wild Geranium

White and Purple Violet

False Solomon's Seal

Wild Coffee

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Pottery Road Work Postponed Til 2011

In Bring Back the Don's Spring 2010 newsletter, it was reported that Pottery Road would be closed for construction for 6 months starting in June. I've just learned that this work is to be postponed until 2011. The reasons are due to other road work priorities and staffing issues in the engineering planner's office.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Mute Swan Nesting on Don Debris

Lakeshore Blvd. East bridge at mouth of Don

I was passing by the mouth of the Don recently and noticed something odd underneath the Lakeshore Blvd. East bridge. Next to one of the bridge abutments is a pile of sticks and debris that often collects beside the river. This stuff is eventually washed away during a heavy storm. However, this pile of sticks seems to have attracted the attention of a pair of Mute Swans and they have taken it over as their spring nesting site.

Nesting site

The Mute Swan is an introduced species in North America native to Europe and parts of Asia. There is some evidence to suggest that the species is becoming invasive in the Great Lakes region and control measures may need to be implemented. There is at least one group that claims the species is native to North America and needs to be protected but the U.S government disputes this assertion. So far these birds are not a big problem in the Don. Native species such as the Trumpeter Swan are also rare but this is due to lack of habitat.

For this pair of birds things appear to be OK for now but it could be bad news if there is heavy downpour in the next few weeks. If you're rooting for these swans, then cross your fingers and hope for the rest of May to be dry.

Mother appears to be doing fine. Swan lovers will wish for a dry spring

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Invasive Species of the Don: Garlic Mustard

Garlic Mustard (Alliaria petiolata) showing flowers, seeds and leaves

A few years ago I wrote a blog post called the Top 5 Threats to the Don. At the time I thought that each of these would make a good post but I soon realized that they all were much larger and complex than could be fit into a single post. The second item, non-native invasive species is one of these complex items. I thought that this year I would try to tackle this item as a photo essay about individual species. This is the first of these posts.

Garlic Mustard (Alliaria petiolata) is a non-native invasive plant species that is one of the problem species in the Don Valley. Actually it is causing problems throughout southern Ontario but it grows especially well in disturbed conditions of which the Don has more than enough such places.

Introduced from Europe as an edible herb, it has escaped cultivation and has invaded our natural areas. It grows in a variety of light conditions from full sun to shady forest understory. It is found in all types of soil except for very wet conditions. Garlic mustard is a biennial meaning that it lives for two years. In the first year a low basal rosette of leaves grows and it remains green throughout the fall and winter. In the following spring the plant grows a stem and flowers. Plants can range from a few centimetres to about a metre in height. It produces small four petaled white flowers which is a characteristic of the mustard family. Soon after flowering, seed pods emerge which first appears as thin green sticks standing upright around the flower stalks. Each seed pod can contain up to 20 seeds. A large plant can produce hundreds of seeds.

In addition to producing plentiful seed, the seeds that it does produce can remain viable for up to 11 years in the soil so that makes it very hard to get rid of it. Animals like deer who naturally feed on forest plants are not used to Garlic Mustard and avoid it, eating other native plants. This creates a positive feedback loop which allows Garlic Mustard to spread even faster.

First year Garlic Mustard rosette in early spring

If all this isn't bad enough, it turns out that garlic mustard is allelopathic. In other words, the roots produce a toxin which kills soil fungi. Many native plants have formed symbiotic relationships with a group of fungi called mycorrhizae. These organisms wrap tiny tethers called hyphae around the roots of plants. The hyphae gather water and nutrients from the soil and transfer it to the plant. In exchange the plant trades sugars and starches gained through photosynthesis for water and nutrients that the fungi collects. When these soil fungi are removed, this inhibits the growth of native plants in our ecosystem.

Another problem that has been noticed is that in areas of abundant garlic mustard tree seedlings are not as successful as they should be. Garlic mustard seems to inhibit their growth. This combination of hardiness, plentiful seed production, allelopathy, and ecosystem effects means that Garlic Mustard can soon overwhelm a natural site and become the dominant species. In some cases the only species growing is Garlic Mustard.

Forest understory in the lower Don Valley. 99% of the plants on the ground are Garlic Mustard

Garlic Mustard is not just limited to parks and ravines. It is also making its way into gardens. What can be done about this nasty invader? Hand pulling is the recommended method. To remove it grasp it tightly as close to the ground as possible and gently pull. Try to get as much of the root as possible because some root fragments have been known to resprout. The roots are not that deep and should be easy to pull out intact.

If you want to help protect our natural areas from this plant and others like it you can join one of the the city's Community Stewardship teams. This volunteer program runs during the spring and summer and helps to protect some of the Don's more important natural areas. Teams meet once per week and remove Garlic Mustard and other non-native invaders.

Roots of a typical plant

Discard the plant into the regular garbage or the kitchen green bin. Don't put it into your garden composter because it will only become contaminated with Garlic Mustard seeds. For large amounts you can put them into a yard waste bag for city pickup.

Saturday, May 08, 2010

Don Council Tour

Kortright Centre

A couple of weeks ago I went on a bus tour of around the Don watershed. Actually one location was in the Humber watershed at the Kortright Centre where we stopped for lunch. The tour was prepared on behalf of the Don Watershed Regeneration Council which has been recently reconstituted with a new group of members. The current council consists of a mix of new and returning members and a mix of young and old, male and female. The council which was created by the Toronto Region Conservation Authority is made up of representatives of non-profit groups interested in Don Watershed restoration efforts and private citizens who are interested in the environment. I sit on the council as a representative of Friends of the Don East.

The current mandate of the Don Council is to press forward with the implementation of the Don Watershed Plan created by the TRCA.

The tour started at Yonge and York Mills and looked at the West Don River where it runs through a flood control channel. There is a project that will clean out part of the river basin that has become clogged with debris. The project is somewhat controversial because the debris and silt have been there for so long that substantial trees have since grown there.

G. Ross Lord reservoir

The second stop was the G. Ross Lord Dam up by Dufferin and Finch. The dam which was built in the 1970s by the TRCA is used for flood control on the west Don. The reservoir is big enough to hold 5 million cubic metres of water. This may sound like a lot but it filled up during the August 2005 storm. This was the storm that washed out Finch Avenue where it crosses Black Creek.

For lunch we stopped at the Kortright Centre where we were given a tour of some sustainable living features that the TRCA is showcasing for local developers. All of the features use current technologies to help reduce the footprint buildings have in the watershed.

Richmond Hill stormwater pond

The 4th stop was a stormwater pond in Richmond Hill and the 5th stop was at the East Don Parklands wetland which I previously wrote about. The last stop was at Earl Bales Park. This featured a tour of a new stormwater pond due to be built in the southeast corner of the park.

Council members mucking about in East Don Parklands

Saturday, May 01, 2010

Earl Bales Stormwater Pond

Site of stormwater pond (click to enlarge)

Schematic of proposed pond in the valley. The light green area at the top right is the golf course.

A couple of schematic drawings of the pond. A path on a causeway will lead to a lookout and interpretive area.

This summer a major construction project will take place on the West Don at the southeast corner of Earl Bales Park. This project which is the culmination of several years of planning will create a stormwater management pond that will capture storm water before it enters the Don River. The pond location is at the base of two creeks, Earl Bales Creek and Dehavilland Creek. Both creeks used to run west towards the Downsview Park area but are now mostly buried in storm sewers. The remnants of their ravines are now confined to the park east of Bathurst Ave. Both of these ravines are severely degraded due to flash flooding from storm water.

Outfall from former DeHavilland Creek. This will be diverted into the new pond

The purpose of the pond is to capture the stormwater before it enters the river. Stormwater and its resultant pollution is the single most important environmental problem affecting the Don River today. When rain falls on a watershed, the water is either absorbed by trees and other vegetation or percolates into the ground. The water eventually enters the river at a steady rate. However, in an urban watershed like the Don, ground cover is dominated by roads and buildings. Water falling on these areas is quickly diverted into storm sewers where it floods into the river. These flash flood events tend to scour out the creeks and rivers. The water picks up dirt and mud and other things. All the suspended material including whatever pollutants from the roads (road salt, oil, grease, etc.) is washed into the river which severely degrades available habitat for fish and other water dwelling organisms. The Don River used to be a healthy river teeming with fish but not any longer. The "Muddy Don" got its nickname because we made it that way.

This stormwater pond is just one small aspect of the slow process of river restoration. Its main purpose will be to stop the stormwater from quickly entering the river. The water will be stored here until the suspended material has had a chance to settle to the bottom of the pond. It is estimated that 20% of the 35,000 cubic metres of silt annually dredged from the mouth of the Don River comes from the Earl Bales park area.

The pond site looking southwest toward the foot of Westgate Blvd.

Looking northeast

The pond will also act as a reservoir for two nearby water uses. The Don Valley Golf Course currently draws water from the river for its grass watering needs. The Earl Bales Ski Hill also does the same for snow making during the winter. After the pond is built the water will be taken from the pond instead.

The pond will provide limited habitat for some wildlife. However it will not be a fully functioning wetland since it will need to be periodically dredged which will cause major disturbances in the pond. Yet overall, the effect will be an improvement in the overall health of the river and the Don Valley. I hope to visit the site a couple of times this year to document progress on this project.

Notice of construction at entrance to the valley at Westgate Blvd.