Niagara just got its watershed report card, and in a region-wide sense, it’s not good news.
A watershed is an area of land drained by a creek or stream into a river, which then flows into a larger body of water such as a lake or pond. Everything in a watershed is connected. Actions upstream can affect conditions downstream.
Ontario’s conservation authorities report on watershed conditions every five years. The watershed report cards use Conservation Ontario guidelines and standards developed by conservation authorities and their partners, measuring groundwater quality, surface water quality, and forest conditions, graded on an A to F scale.
The Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority (NPCA) has posted a summary of its latest watershed report card online, which paints a less than glowing summary of the state of the region’s surface water quality, which received a D rating (due largely to high levels of phosphorus and E. coli contamination). Forest conditions received a C- rating, given that only approximately 17 percent of the Niagara Peninsula watershed land base is forested cover (lower than the 30 percent cover required by conservation science for a healthy watershed.) More encouraging was the groundwater quality B grade over 46 NPCA monitored sites, the same score as in 2018.
According to NPCA’s Manager of Watershed Monitoring and Reporting, Joshua Diamond, a quick fix is not in the cards, and it could take decades before significant improvement occurs.
“In addition to the five-year report cards, we at the NPCA do annual reports on water quality conditions in our watershed, and have a lot of monitoring stations in the Upper 12 Mile Creek watershed, which includes Pelham. It has really good water quality, compared to the rest of the region,” said Diamond.
It’s important not to confuse ground water or surface water scores with the purity of the water that comes out of your tap in Niagara, he cautioned.
“It’s a common point of confusion. Most of the drinking water that we get in Niagara, at least in the big cities, is coming from the Great Lakes, meaning Lake Erie via the Welland Canal,” he said.
The Niagara Region’s water treatment plants produce some of the highest quality drinking water in the province, according to industry professionals.
The NPCA’s Water Quality Monitoring Program was implemented in 2001, and involves the collection of water quality samples at 80 surface water stations and 46 groundwater wells located throughout the NPCA watershed. Surface water quality samples are analyzed for indicators such as chloride, nutrients, E. coli, suspended solids, and metals.
“We use something called the Canadian Water Quality Index, an Environment Canada tool to summarize our data and make it more digestible for the public,” said Diamond.
For surface water, the monitoring results indicate most of the NPCA’s watersheds have poor water quality. Phosphorus, E. coli, suspended solids, and chlorides from agricultural/livestock runoff, faulty septic systems, sewer overflow, and urban stormwater continue to be the major causes of impairment in the NPCA watershed.
Watercourses under the direct influence from the Great Lakes and Niagara River, such as the Lower Welland River, have higher water quality ratings. Watershed tributaries that are strongly influenced by groundwater discharge, like the Effingham portion of the Upper Twelve Mile Creek and Upper Welland River, have the best water quality ratings in the NPCA watershed.
Pelham has little heavy industry to pollute local waterways, but occasionally gets “pulses” of runoff from urban areas, involving road salts and metals, said Diamond.
“I administer water well decommissioning programs, and we've actually done quite a few in Pelham, where people have abandoned water wells that are no longer in use. By law, they need to be decommissioned, because they can be a direct conduit for contaminants.”
There are many ways that both the general public and regional businesses can do to improve the data being tracked by NPCA.
“We want to keep as much of the natural tree cover as possible, because that protects the system,” said Diamond, who added that the Region is working to reduce the use of road salt in the winter. It’s also important for farmers to use best management practices in their agriculture with regard to use of fertilizers and pesticides. The same approach applies to the golf courses in Pelham.
Individuals can enhance the watershed by planting native trees, wildflowers, and shrubs, and by gardening with non-invasive plants. Reducing the use of household chemicals, including detergents, cleaners, and lawn chemicals also helps. Those rural dwellers with septic systems should have them inspected every three to five years. Communities can make positive changes in the environment by protecting wetlands and other natural heritage features, deploying effective sediment and erosion control measures on development sites, seeking ways to reduce carbon emissions, and supporting local monitoring and restoration initiatives to track environmental changes.
The Niagara Chapter of Trout Unlimited Canada is a conservation organization made up of volunteers who care about the last remaining cold water aquatic system in Niagara, the Upper Twelve Mile Creek Watershed. Dennis Edell, the chapter’s president, told PelhamToday that “the Upper Twelve got high marks on the NPCA watershed report card in two of the metrics: ground water and forest cover. Surface water, unfortunately, earned a D grade, which is indicative of the chemicals in the water flushed into the Upper Twelve from the hard surfaces of development upstream. Our mission is to continue to improve quality and re-establish a dwindling Brook Trout population, an indicator of a healthy cold water resource. It’s why the repair of the erosion and sedimentation issue at the Pelham Stormwater Management Pond is essential to the health of this precious watershed.”
The NPCA is one of 36 conservation authorities in Ontario, managing 41 conservation areas within the Niagara watershed held in public trust for recreation, heritage preservation, conservation, and education. As a 63-year old community-based resource management agency, it works to protect, enhance, and sustain the natural environment in the region. The NPCA serves approximately 520,000 people and covers an area of over 2,400 square kilometres. According to the organization’s website, “the Niagara Peninsula watershed is a natural treasure of distinct cultural, geological, hydrological, and biological aspects not found elsewhere in North America. It is part of the Carolinian life zone and one of the most biodiverse and threatened ecoregions in Canada. More than 2,200 species of plants and animals live in the Niagara Peninsula watershed.”