Educational Companion: Ontario’s Protected and Unprotected Water
What is a water walk?
A number of water walks have taken place here in Ontario. These walks are designed to raise awareness about water and its critical need for protection in an ever-expanding and urbanizing climate. Josephine Mandamin, an environmental activist from Wikwemikong First Nation, Ontario, started the water walking movement when she co-founded Mother Earth Water Walk in 2003. Since that initial walk, Josephine has walked about 170,000 kilometres around all of the Great Lakes to raise awareness about water pollution. Her final walk was in 2017 with the Great Lakes Water Walk. In this time, communities and organizations have held their own water walks throughout the province and have taken to social media to get their message out with hashtags including #ActionForWater, #SaveOurWater and #WaterProtectors.
Protected Water: The Greenbelt
A major source of water in Ontario is through the Greenbelt. Ontario’s Greenbelt is the world’s largest permanently protected greenbelt. It has over 2 million acres of land, extends as far north as Tobermory, and stretches 325 kilometres from Rice Lake in Northumberland County to Niagara River.
The natural heritage system includes 721, 000 acres of lakes, wetlands, river valleys and forests. It helps to protect our Great Lakes by safeguarding 268,430 acres of smaller lakes, wetlands, rivers and streams that feed them.
In 2017, the Greenbelt expanded to include 21 urban river valleys and seven coastal wetlands, which connected water resources in the rural areas of the Greenbelt to Lake Ontario. These waterways help to clean and filter our water and air, and reduce flood risks, on top of providing greenspace to explore and a home to wildlife. This addition came out of recognition of the role the Greenbelt plays in protecting the hydrological features Ontarians rely on for clean drinking water, flood protection and healthy ecosystems.
The Greenbelt is in many ways also a water belt. It protects the headwaters, valleys and tributaries of streams and rivers, and holds significant groundwater reserves, particularly in the Oak Ridges Moraine.
The Oak Ridges Moraine is considered the water ‘heart’ of the Greenbelt. It is a glacial landform unique to southern Ontario and is considered the “rain barrel of southern Ontario.” Here, sand and gravel from glacial deposits filters water which fills aquifers. These underground water systems provide the headwaters to over 80 rivers and streams flowing into Lake Ontario and Lake Simcoe.
Development is the biggest threat to the health of water systems in the Greenbelt, and can cause a number of issues with serious consequences – impermeable surfaces and loss of forest cover in the watershed can create challenges for the rivers; decreasing groundwater recharge can affect the base-rate flow of rivers and can cause the river levels to reach dangerously low levels for many species during drier months; increasing water temperatures can affect trout and salmon that rely on coldwater streams, as well as other fish species requiring specific temperatures; increasing pollution means that it flows quicker into our water systems from paved surfaces during storms; and increasing river bank erosion that puts properties at risk costs millions of dollars a year in Ontario. Additional development pressures and climate change will only exacerbate the existing issues.
Unprotected Watersheds: the Bluebelt and the Grand River
Around 1 million people rely on water in the “Bluebelt” – areas outside the protected waterways that are vulnerable to unsustainable urban sprawl and resource extraction.
The Greater Golden Horseshoe is one of the fastest growing regions in North America. Home to over 9 million people, and projected to grow to 13.5 million by 2041, the region’s growth and development poses a potential threat to some water resources. Urbanization and human activity impacts the region’s rivers, wetlands and underground reservoirs (aquifers), which can affect the quality and quantity of water available to local communities, industries, plants and animals. Additionally, extreme weather events that cause floods and droughts are placing more pressure on water sources. Maintaining current hydrological systems is imperative to ensuring the ecosystem services they provide, including clean drinking water.
The Grand River watershed is one of these unprotected areas, and was also the site for the water walk led by Mary-Anne Caibaiosai. Over 120 community groups, consisting of over 500, 000 members, are proposing to grow the Greenbelt to protect this watershed and others in the Bluebelt.
The Grand River watershed consists of all the land drained by the Grand River and its tributaries. It is 6800 square kilometres and the largest watershed in southern Ontario. It starts in Dufferin Highlands at an elevation of 525 metres above sea level and flows south about 280 kilometres to Lake Erie at Port Maitland, which is about 174 metres above sea level.
The four major rivers feeding into the Grand are the Conestogo, Nith, Speed and Eramosa, reaching a combined length of 11,000 kilometres. The watershed crosses four climate zones: Dundalk Upland, Huron Slopes, South Slopes and Lake Erie counties. There are 80 species at-risk in this watershed and over 90 species of fish, which makes up half of all fish species in Canada. Municipal water systems draw their water from wells and the river system, in contrast to most major Ontario communities, which depend on the Great Lakes.
The Waterloo, Paris/Galt and Orangeville moraines account for 80 per cent of the watershed’s total groundwater recharge, despite covering just 30 per cent of the land area. Nearly 800, 000 people in Guelph, Kitchener, Waterloo, Cambridge, Brantford and other towns along the watershed rely on moraine aquifers and groundwater for clean drinking water. These moraines also replenish springs, streams and rivers in the Grand River watershed with cool, clean water. This recharge process maintains river flow in times of drought and keep streams cool, providing a habitat for rare species, such as the brook trout.
Moraines and other source water areas are complex and interconnected – sensitive to changes from heavy urbanization activity. Loss of habitat, increasing demands for water and escalating levels of pollution are proven to cause irreversible long-term effects.
Learn more about protected and unprotected water on the Greenbelt website.
Read Mary Anne Caibaiosai's account of the All Nations Grand River Water Walk here.
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