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"Ever wonder if City Council is as contentious and chaotic as it is sometimes portrayed? Here you can get a progressive perspective on some of the issues from someone who spent four years in the trenches. Totally unbiased, though! Feel free to comment but keep it respectful, just like they do at council."

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Name that drain!

Although it had been billed by the London Free Press as a protest demonstration, the Saturday walk through part of the natural heritage system known as the Stanton Drain was anything but. Instead it was, as the organizers had indicated in their email and Facebook invitations, an informational tour of a wetland at risk.

The gathering was scheduled for 11 a.m., 11 minutes after the beginning of fall. The sky had been threatening a downpour, but almost on the dot of 11, the clouds disappeared and the sun shone brightly the rest of the day.

Tour of Stanton Drain
About 30 people—children, youth, adults and seniors—as well as a couple of dogs gathered at the entrance to the significant wetland. Unfortunately, not one of them was a member of city council, that body which has the ultimate say over whether the “beaver and muskrat, the 37 species of birds, the 6 amphibian species at risk, the breeding populations of frogs, and the provincially significant vegetation” will be protected or destroyed.

"Blue Jay" by Barry Kent MacKay
And so we set off to tour the area led by local environmentalist and activist, Anna Maria Valastro. With her was Barry Kent MacKay, a Toronto resident, writer and wildlife artist, who also serves as the Canadian representative on Born Free USA, a non-profit organization dedicated to animal wildlife protection.

Valastro was clear about her objective; she wants to stop the bulldozers that the city has scheduled to move in next month to create a stormwater management pond, SWM 4 in a series of 6 interconnected ponds to deal with the impacts of the headlong development talking place in the northwest part of the city.

According to the city, landowners in the area have been complaining that they have problems with flooding and are having difficulty getting insurance. Valastro thinks this is hogwash; it’s just to facilitate further development without consideration for ecological sustainability.

“People love their natural spaces,” she pointed out. “It’s what makes the city special. But, she noted, in this city developers carry a lot of weight. “A handful of developers are playing council like fiddles.”

She went on to point out that the so-called channel—which is to be deepened and cement-lined to increase flow capacity—is part of a natural tributary system which empties into the Thames River, recently declared to be a heritage river. “Council has no idea about the impacts,” she said. “They have no data; they don’t know and they don’t care.”

“The city has framed this as a beaver issue,” she continued, “but that’s not true.” It was the disregard for all the species, animal and vegetative, that called this home, that would die as a result of putting infrastructure in the environmentally sensitive area.

And the idea that the beavers could be relocated was also a fiction. By now the beavers had been busy storing food; it would be too late to start over. They would die of starvation.   

Relocation is not as easy as it would seem. According to the Ministry of Natural Resources, relocation of wildlife has to be done within a 1 km radius; anything greater than that, and the animal is likely doomed as it enters the territory of its rivals. But the local landholders refuse to accept the beavers, so where are they to go? That’s the conundrum facing city stormwater engineer Berta Kritchker. She is determined to find a humane evacuation of the beavers whose habitat will be destroyed by the city’s bulldozers. It is doubtful if one exists.

The alternative is to send in the trappers who will “euthanize” them. That’s a euphemism for “kill”.

Most of us on the walk were hoping to see the beaver dam and perhaps a beaver at work. It was not difficult to find the former, only a couple of hundred meters or so from the entrance.
Beaver Dam in Stanton Drain

Apparently the beavers weren’t the only ones building dams in the ditch; there was evidence of a cement barrier the full width of the stream. In true resourceful fashion, the beavers had incorporated it into their dam. Call it redevelopment.

A neighbouring landowner noted how the beavers had caused a lot of problems in the area. “Not as much as people,” one of the hikers rejoined. A minor altercation ensued.

“It’s called progress,” the neighbour insisted. He pointed out that the objections came far too late. Most of the land had been bought up by a developer who was planning to build houses all the way to Fanshawe Park Road. They should have complained 10 years ago.

He had a point. The series of stormwater ponds had been approved ten years ago and were still being phased in. At that time there was less protection in the official plan for natural heritage. Even Kritchker acknowledges that this pond would never have been approved under the changes that were made to the official plan in 2009, changes which discourage locating infrastructure in a natural heritage system, and which, if alternatives can’t be found, require mitigation and/or compensation for any negative impacts. If negative impacts can’t be compensated for in the natural heritage, they should recreate a similar habitat close by. But the local landowners wouldn’t sell. Whether some would have allowed work on their land was unclear.

So they were stuck. Although the Ecological and Environmental Protection Advisory Committee and the Animal Welfare Advisory Committee had tried its best to warn council about the impacts, council had given staff the go ahead and staff had put out the tender. Construction was about to start in October. 

The organizers of the field trip didn’t see it that way. It wasn’t too late to do the right thing. Cancel the work and seek out alternatives to deal with the flooding attributed to beavers. There were beaver baffles, relatively cheap and easy to install. There were tree guards. The alternatives had not been considered by staff.

Vanastro sees beaver as a keystone species which repairs damaged ecosystems improving habitat for plants and animals, reducing soil erosion, filtering toxins, and stimulating tree growth through pruning activities. On the latter point, we observed the regrowth of beaver-felled trees creating bushy nesting places for various bird species. And, Vanastro insisted, there is research available which demonstrates that there is less flooding in areas where the beavers have been left alone.

It’s not just the beavers, of course. In fact, we didn’t even see one. It’s all the wildlife, it’s the incremental effect of decision after decision, reducing habitat and decreasing biodiversity.

That’s the conclusion of MacKay. It’s not that this particular wetland is so special, it’s that bit by bit we are losing them. “It’s the incremental destruction of wetlands that creates a long term greater problem.”

Anna Maria Valastro
“The city should start recognizing that people love their green spaces. They’re good for people and good for wildlife,” Valastro added. “They shouldn’t have a handful of developers dictating what happens in these environmentally sensitive areas.” 

Although this wasn’t a protest demonstration, Valastro did make a call to action. She wants residents to lobby their councillors to take another look at the alternatives. She became involved only a week ago, but already she is having an impact through social and traditional media.

Before her invitation, few in the city had any idea of what a natural gem they had in their city. Thanks to her efforts, and the efforts of other environmentalists and animal welfare advocates, many London residents will begin to appreciate what a few dozen citizens experienced first-hand on that Saturday morning walk.

She is also encouraging residents to describe their experience. Noting that the streams in that area have never been named, she invites friends of the area to propose names for them. Almost anything will be an improvement over Stanton Drain. Send your suggestions to bettyboop07@execulink.com .

If you missed the walk, you can still check it out on your own by visiting the site on the north side of Gainsborough Road just west of Hyde Park Road, at the railroad track. A stone gate marks the entrance. It’s a short walk and well worth the effort.


Vicki Van Linden said...

The tour was so enjoyable. The children seemed to have a good time in that beautiful, natural area.

A landscaped park, though lovely in its own way, does not substitute for a natural area like this.

If we allow this wetland and wildlife habitat to be destroyed under a sterile Storm Water Pond, and steal this away from future generations, then I hope parents and grandparents will be prepared to explain to their kids why the world that we are leaving them is much less beautiful and diverse.

There is still time to find better solutions if we work together, and if City Council directs staff to put those bull-dozers on hold.

Anonymous said...

I can't read your blog today Gina. I'm ready, able and willing, but when I scroll down past a picture the page folds over itself like there's an origami expert manipulating cyberspace and the words disappear. I understand this is a technical error and probably no fault of your own, but ultimately you are responsible for the consequences of your delivery agent. If I don't get the message it's not likely that I'll be able to participate in your worthy causes.

Just sayin' said...

Why not call it the Brain Drain in
honour of City Council?

Rachel Larivee said...

After attending the tour with my daughter and her friend, in toe, my husband and I arranged to go back yesterday, alone, to explore. We spent about 3hrs trekking through the area, shootig as much as we could with our camera and video camera. Avid animal rights and environmental advocates, there's no way I can ignore this issue. This highly developed wetland needs to be preserved, without question. I can't speak for everyone, but I am betting none of us will back down.

Thanks to Anna Maria Valastro and Barry MacKay for educating us and making us aware.

Sandy Levin said...

Just tell council to say no to awarding the tender and tell staff to go back and do the storm water management under current policies that protect the natural environment.

Rod Morley said...

I agree with what Sandy said. Perhaps the Stanton Drain could be renamed Hope Creek. The hope of a better more inclusive London