The Star (Toronto, Ontario), April 8, 2007


[Rachel's introduction: "Once you protect the environmental features and functions adequately, if there's anything left over that can be used for recreation, they can look at that. But in a case of conflict, the precautionary principle dictates that you protect the environment first. And that's what's missing."]

By Andrew Chung

On a cloudless, eye-squinting, early spring day in west London, Ont., the stretch of the Thames River in treasured Springbank Park can seem as picturesque as a storybook, which, incidentally, is the name of a children's garden nearby. The water is rushing through the open park dam, people are jogging by with their dogs, and ash trees are stretching their bony limbs, beginning to wake up for the season.

Come summer, however, if you walk by on a sweltering afternoon, the stench will wash over you like a wave of sewage. The area still looks beautiful, but by this time the dam is closed, the mud-coloured water has risen to create a languorous reservoir, and it eventually becomes clear that this little stretch of river is no idyllic walk in the park.

The dam is the focus of an ongoing controversy in this southwestern Ontario city. It's undergoing an over-budget, $7 million rehabilitation after a flood in 2000 caused major damage.

Some insist the dam should be got rid of altogether, since it serves little purpose other than providing canoeists and rowers with urban waters. They argue that dismantling it would improve water quality while removing a major barrier for fish.

Most officials, aside from environmental activists and anglers, seem to agree the river would be better off without the dam, but they defend the decision to keep it anyway because of its historical significance to the city and the demand for boating in the park.

In the course of the debate, Springbank Dam has emerged as a test case for the role and independence of the province's conservation authorities. These agencies are charged with watershed conservation, but also with providing the public with recreational settings.

What happens, as in this case, when those two mandates collide?

Such conflicts will happen more and more in this province. Many of Ontario's thousands of dams are reaching an age where they're breaking down. Dams, if not serving a purpose for flood control or electricity generation, are now generally thought of as obstructing the health of rivers.

Ontario is behind the United States, where there is an active movement to get rid of old dams. But the Star has learned that the province might be catching up. Queen's Park is developing legislation that will address head-on the issue of dam decommissioning (see sidebar).


Sidebar: Queen's Park set to unveil new policy

Though little known to the public, Ontario's vast tangle of waterways is clogged with thousands of dams that disrupt the flow of rivers. And many of them, built in the 1960s or earlier, are breaking down.

Experts are becoming more aware of the environmental costs of dams - particularly those that serve no essential purpose such as flood control or electricity generation -- and want rivers returned to their natural state.

In Ontario, as London's Springbank Dam highlights, each municipality, conservation authority or private interest is deciding for itself what to do with the dams it owns.

Some dams are being dismantled for environmental reasons; others are kept for aesthetic, recreational and historical reasons.

Critics say this piecemeal approach may not be good for the future of Ontario's river system.

"On an issue like dam removals," says biologist Isobel Heathcote, who teaches environmental engineering at the University of Guelph, "there's a need for consistency across the province in terms of policies and practices."

There is no current policy, but the Star has learned one is coming.

The Ministry of Natural Resources is developing a new dam safety program for Ontario and hopes to introduce new legislation later this year. It would allow for the scrutiny of all existing and new dams and specifically look at decommissioning, says Rob Messervey, manager of the ministry's water resources section.

"If (dams) don't meet standards, a plan would be put in place to bring it to standard, or decommission."

Dams at least three metres in height, or two metres with a headpond of at least two hectares, would come under review. There are at least 2,500 of those in the province.

Ontario is already behind the United States, where dam removals have been under way for more than a decade. The conservation group American Rivers has recorded more than 650 dam removals so far, 300 since 1999.

More than a century ago, dams began dotting Ontario's waterways, often to provide power for mills.

In the 1960s, the province helped conservation authorities build them to deal with drought. A host of private dams were also erected.

Conservation authorities across the province are increasingly having to consider removals.

The Grand River Conservation Authority, which includes Kitchener- Waterloo and counts 132 dams in its watershed, has removed three dams in the past two years. But it also decided to keep the Dunville Dam, which served recreational purposes only.

The Toronto and Region Conservation Authority removed a small dam at its Bruce's Mill Conservation Area, but also kept one in Palgrave because it was considered a historic feature of the community.


Devastating provincial budget cuts since 1992 have meant that conservation authorities must now rely heavily on municipal governments. Meanwhile, the authorities' boards are now made up primarily of local politicians.

With such a funding source and structure, can they make decisions that are best for the environment but not ideal for local residents?In the case of the Springbank Dam, the answer would seem to be no. "Our board of directors has London members on it, and we've been aware for a long time that removal wasn't really something the city was interested in entertaining," says Ian Wilcox, general manager of the Upper Thames River Conservation Authority. "So our position defaulted to that."

He admits, however, that the decision has backfired somewhat. "The Springbank Dam hasn't been great for our reputation locally," he says. "There have been questions as to why we didn't, as environmental advocates, push harder for the removal of the dam, recognizing there are environmental benefits. That's something we're reflecting on."

I'm Scottish -- I get fired up about things," fly-fishing guide Ian Colin James explains with a heavy shrug. He's as broad as two men, a former rugby player, and has 25 years of guiding experience, much of it waist-deep in the Thames.

And he's been fighting the Springbank Dam for more than three years. "I've always believed that when people are involved in conservation, they should do their job," he says. "But they're not doing it."

The drab, concrete, gap-toothed Springbank Dam is classified as either small- or medium-sized. It's 67 metres across and nearly 10 metres high and when in operation, it raises the water level by two storeys, creating a huge reservoir, 7 kilometres long.

It used to function with the insertion of timber stop-logs into the dam, an antiquated mechanism dating back to its construction in 1929. The rehabilitation will change the system to four hydraulic, drawbridge-style gates.

The dam is unique in that it's typically only in operation -- that is, in a "closed" position -- between May and November. The rest of the year it's "open," and the river flows freely.

In December 2003 the conservation authority, as the dam operator for the City of London, which owns the structure, completed an environmental assessment on the dam through an outside consultant. While dam decommissioning emerged as an option, it was rejected in favour of rehabilitation.

This angered James and other anglers, who thought the assessment gave their concerns short shrift. They believe the dam makes it difficult for many species of fish, from walleye to white sucker to bass, to swim and spawn upriver.

So James personally drove to Toronto to deliver a letter saying so to David Ramsay, the minister of natural resources.

Soon, the ministry's area supervisor, Dan Elliott, was involved. Elliott says officials "failed" to address concerns that the dam's new design would prevent some fish species from making it through to upstream spawning beds. The design was modified as a result.

A science team headed by Elliott also determined that about eight in 10 fish made it through the old dam in its open position. They decreed that the new dam must meet the same standard.

But James is not convinced. "There's no evidence the fish will go through the new gates," he says, noting that the gates create a half- metre-high step on the river floor the fish will have to clear. "It's just a guess." He and others are also concerned about the water quality in the reservoir, not only for spawning fish and the larvae that drift back downstream, but also for humans. Locals often remark how, on hot days, the water stinks like sewage.

Seeing as the dam creates a still headpond -- a "cesspool," as some call it -- it was easy for them to link the dam to the water issue.

Last year, James founded a local chapter of Trout Unlimited, a fish conservation group, to advocate for dam removal. The chapter paid for a series of water tests at the dam site, performed by ALS Laboratory Group. The average count for E.coli, a fecal bacterium, was 1319, 13 times higher than the limit of 100 recommended for swimming. One sample was 55 times higher.

The Star obtained City of London E.coli data for tests taken upstream from the dam but still within the reservoir. For 2006, the average count was 833, eight times over the limit. One sample was 52 times over.

Anglers were amazed at the high numbers. The dam is "a high-cost pollution maintenance device," declares Felix Barbetti of the Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters.

Aside from the obvious problems polluted water pose for fish, it can also cause humans grief. "When water sprays in your eye, you get an eye infection," says London Canoe Club president Addie Gushue, who brings alcohol swabs on outings with her dragon boat team. "You don't want to go in the water. But you know kids want to play. They flip their kayaks and think it's a hoot. There's a high incidence of skin rashes, eye and ear infections.

"But you still do it because it's fun," she laughs.The local health unit and the city say poor water health in the Thames is no secret to Londoners, and there are many projects upstream of the dam to help make river water cleaner. They also say boating is fine in the reservoir, just not swimming, and they recommend a shower to anyone who comes into contact with the water.

The reservoir seems to be worse than the rest of the river. Though James sometimes accuses officials of skirting the issue, it was addressed in the dam's environmental assessment. Reservoir water quality was classified as "poor" with, on average, bacterial levels more than twice what they are in the rest of the watershed.

Still, at a city committee meeting on March 19, officials denied any connection between the dam and water quality, instead blaming the 3,100 square kilometres of farms upstream of London that drain into the river, as well as the sewage treatment plants in the city, which every year during heavy rains dump untreated waste effluent into the river.

"The dam doesn't have anything to do with E.coli," maintains Tom Copeland, the city's manager of wastewater and drainage engineering.

But even Copeland would agree the reservoir is quite stagnant, accumulates toxins and sediments, and becomes depleted of oxygen as it heats up from the sun, conditions that are terrible for fish but perfect for algae growth.

"And," adds biologist Isobel Heathcote, who teaches environmental engineering at the University of Guelph, "you have nice warm dark, wet conditions that are suitable for bacteria to grow."

Conservation authorities never get a lot of attention. They operate quietly, fulfilling an unsung role in society that typically gets noticed only when something bad happens, like a flood.

In Canada, they are unique to Ontario, created in 1946 by the province as a way to recruit municipal help for runaway erosion and flooding, and to provide returning war veterans with much-needed employment.

For decades, their main goal was flood control. Now their mandate has expanded to protecting, managing and restoring waterways and woodlands. As well, they're to provide educational and recreational opportunities to the public.

No one denies the authorities do good work. But it's clear that sometimes these mandates come into direct conflict, as they have in London.

A lot of people seem to agree that the Thames would be better off if there was no Springbank Dam, especially since it serves only a recreational purpose, unlike the Fanshawe Dam upriver, which is used for flood control.

Elliott says that from an environmental standpoint, the best-case scenario would be to "blow it the hell out of there." But he acknowledges the competing interests.

Don Pearson, general manager of Conservation Ontario, the umbrella group for Ontario's 36 conservation authorities, concurs. "On an overall habitat standpoint," he says, "we'd have to agree it'd be better for the river... if it were free-flowing."

Even Wilcox of the Upper Thames River Conservation Authority concedes that his agency could have advocated more loudly for dam removal, but he adds: "There was recognition early on that the city wanted to retain the structure, and most of us understood that out of all the dams this is one of biggest and heavily used recreation spots in the whole watershed."

Indeed, a number of recreational groups exerted heavy pressure on city hall. The Canoe Club, which has close to 2,000 members, and the rowing club, with which it shares a clubhouse on the reservoir, fought hard to keep the dam."I don't understand why they'd want to remove that dam," says Canoe Club president Gushue. "Everybody can function with it... When the dam is down there's nothing there. But when it's up, it's awesome."

They made sure to let city hall know that a number of Canada's top rowers, including Marnie McBean, have trained in London, and that the economic loss to city businesses due to cancelled regattas could reach $1 million.

Conservation authorities province-wide regularly face such choices - between what's best for the environment and citizens' demands. "It's an everyday occurrence," Pearson says.

Conservation authorities say they have to balance the competing priorities. But they should protect the environment first, says environmental lawyer David Donnelly, who represents Toronto-based group Environmental Defence and has extensive experience dealing with conservation authorities.

"It's the ordering of the mandate that needs to be changed," he says. + "That key question of 'Which (mandate) has precedence?' -- that's not a decision that should be left to individual conservation authorities," says University of Guelph biologist Heathcote. "There should be some guiding hand across the province."

But under the current system, says Wilcox, conservation authorities frequently have to perform a balancing act. "There are tradeoffs, I won't deny that," he says. When asked whether conservation agencies should be making tradeoffs, he replies, "Even though our legislation comes from the province, we were created by the municipalities and so we're a product of our municipal governments."

Indeed, conservation authorities have become more reliant on municipalities as a result of 87 per cent provincial funding cuts since 1992, to $7.6 million (although extra money is granted for infrastructure and clean water projects).

In addition, today directors on authority boards are primarily municipal politicians -- on average 75 per cent, according to Conservation Ontario. In the past, many members had an environmental background or an interest in the work of the authority, says Rob Messervey, manager of the ministry's water resources section.

For Heathcote, the municipal role could mean citizens' demands are more likely to get a hearing in conservation authorities, but could also erode their independence. "The more funding that flows from the municipalities, the more the municipalities are actively guiding the decisions of the conservation authority," she says, "the more its voice will be felt in decisions."

Though its rehabilitation has been so controversial, it appears many Londoners still don't know what's going on in their storied Springbank Park.

"I don't think we knew how it affected the environment, or that we could get rid of it," says area resident Mary Morris, on a stroll past the dam.

"I do know the water is awful though."

"To me the dam doesn't make any difference," says psychiatrist Dr. Gamal Sadek. "I come here to see the geese."

Their lack of concern belies a continuing fight -- the anglers are planning a public meeting later this month.

But two dam gates have already been installed. There are two more to go.