(Above: Stittsville residents are concerned about the health of the Upper Poole Creek Wetland. From left to right: Marcos Alvarez, Jonah Alvarez, Andrea Sedgwick, Ken McRae, Sylvie Sabourin, Mila (last name unknown). Photo via Ken McRae, October 2014.)
The Upper Poole Creek wetland is one of Stittsville’s greatest natural features. So many of us walk our dogs, jog, cycle or otherwise explore the Trans Canada Trail, and stop at the observation deck to look out over the marsh.
Sometimes you’ll see turtles, small fish, frogs, birds. It’s about a kilometre west of suburban boundary of Stittsville, and some of the best views are at sunrise and sunset.
A lot of residents take a keen interest in the health of the wetland and wildlife along the trail, including the people in the group pictured above. They’ve noticed the water levels in the marsh rise and fall over the years. They’ve seen city crews with heavy construction equipment clean out ditches and beaver dams. And they’ve been keeping an eye on nearby landowners who’ve harmed the ecosystem in the past.
It’s a story that goes back well over a decade.
“WETLANDS PROVIDE MANY IMPORTANT ENVIRONMENTAL VALUES,” says Ken McRae, one of the residents who’s been the most active in advocating for the protection of the wetland. “They’re a natural floodplain to prevent flooding. They’re natural filters of water passing through them and they’re groundwater recharge areas that help to provide local wells with good quality and quanity of water. They’re the most bio-diverse of all land forms. They provide habitat for many different plant, mammal, bird, insect, reptile, fish, and amphibian species, including a number of species at risk.”
McRae says his group has seen and photographed species at risk including Blanding’s Turtles and a Snapping Turtle, as well as a nest of barn swallows near the observation deck.
“The current problems are now around the environmentally damaging attempts by the city to drain this wetland further,” wrote resident Paul Renaud in an email to StittsvilleCentral.ca. “The drain should never have been approved in the first place and should be abandoned as a bad idea that is compromising Stittsville’s favourite recreational area.”
A BRIEF TIMELINE:
- In 1990, the Upper Poole Creek wetland was classified as a Provincially Significant Wetland (PSW). That designation was based on size, recreational use, vegetation, and wildlife, including the presence of rare amphibian and bird species.
- In the early 2000s, nearby landowners petitioned the city to establish the Hazeldean Road Municipal Drain. It would connect a series of culverts, ditches and natural waterways (including the wetland) together to provide better drainage for property stretching from Rothborne Road to south of the Trans Canada Trail. At the time, the Mississippi Valley Conservation Authority (MVCA) expressed concern about the impact it could have on wetland in the area.
- City council approved the municipal drain in 2011, after much back-and-forth between various stakeholders including the City, the MVCA, landowners, the public and the Ministry of Natural Resources. Work to establish the drain included replacing an old culvert under the Trans Canada Trail near the observation deck, removing beaver dams, and cleaning out debris from streams and ditches.
- Shortly after that work was completed, residents noticed the water levels in the marsh were way down. Actually, that’s an understatement: the water disappeared (see photo below). An open house was held in Stittsville that fall, with officials from the City and MVCA suggesting a hot dry summer, not culvert work, was to blame for the low water level. The MVCA established a Community Monitoring Network, using volunteers to track water levels at the observation deck.
- Since 2011, the water levels in the wetland were gradually re-estblished. There are a number of reasons why that may have happened: beaver dams, blockages in the culvert, and annual rainfall. It appeared that people were placing rocks in front of the culvert to create a dam, which may have helped keep the wetland waters artificially high. Landowners again complained about water levels on their property, which the city had to respond to under the Municipal Drainage Act.
- In 2014, the City received approval from the MCVA to extend the culvert under the Trans Canada Trail, to try to prevent it from being blocked up. That work was completed in September 2014, and water levels in the wetland receded again.
- Between last fall and this spring, city crews have been back several times to remove rocks placed in front of the culvert. City staff believes a resident, or several residents, are putting the rocks there in order to keep the wetland water level high. Water levels do look significantly lower this year compared to previous summers.
IT MIGHT SURPRISE YOU that the land north and south of the Trans Canada Trail is mostly private property (although the trail itself belongs to the City). Much of the marsh immediately north of the lookout belongs to a numbered company registered as The Poole Creek Management Company Ltd., and Keith Sabiston is listed as a director.
Sabiston is also the president of Triple-K Transport on Hazeldean Road, although none of our calls to the company were returned.
Ken McRae believes landowners in the area want to keep their land dry so that they can re-sell it for future development. As long as their land is classified as Provincially Significant Wetland (PSW), they can’t build on it. If the wetland recedes, the PSW designation could be removed.
“They don’t want to just avoid any flooding, they want the wetland drained so they can get the provincially significant wetland designation removed from the properties, so that then they can get their properties developed and get lots of money,” he says.
We’ve tried to contact several of the property owners over the past several months, but few have been willing to be interviewed.
Len Payne has owned land on the south side of Jinkinson Road just past Hazeldean since 1998. (We wrote about his concerns about water discharge from nearby quarries last fall.) The first time I called him he hung up on me, but eventually he agreed to meet with me and took me on a tour of his property.
The front part of Len’s property nearest to Jinkinson is gravel and full of shipping containers, backhoes and other construction equipment. Then there’s an empty field, and then bush in the back, closer to the Trans Canada Trail. There’s a ditch along west side of property that Len cleared out.
“I was involved in the petition for a municipal drain and have had discussions with the City of Ottawa to clean out the beaver dams and let the water flow where it’s supposed to,” he said.
Payne says he wants to eventually sell his land for development, but he can’t now because it’s designated PSW. Part of the reason for the digging ditch was to get water off his land.
The Mississippi Valley Conservation Authority (MVCA), along with the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) has charged landowners for damaging natural features within the drain’s catchment area in the past, although those charges haven’t always stuck. At least one case is still before the courts, and often the agencies negotiate remediation work rather than proceeding with a charge.
In 2001, the MNR fined Stephen’s Auto Wreckers $25,000 plus restoration costs for “harmful alterration, disruption or destruction of fish habitat” and ordered to conduct remedial work on the site, estimated to cost $75,000
The wrecking business, located on Fernbank Road on the south side of the Trans Canada Trail, pleaded guilty to placing massive amounts of fill into Poole Creek. The MNR used aerial photographs from 1978 to 1999 to show that the business filled in an area of flood plain, swamp and creek, and actually relocating the course of the creek over time.
“I’m not very concerned about the flooding, I was years ago but now I’ve just given up on all that, not even interested,” said owner Gerry Stephens in an interview last October. “I’m not interested in developing my land at all.”
“I’ve battled and battled and battled with environmentalists for years, and I’ve given up battling with them. I don’t care what happens back there. Back in the early 90’s and late 80’s, I was battling with all sorts of governments, through almost a million dollars, and nobody helpin’ me. I totally gave up, and wrote that property off,” he said.
SO WHAT IS A PROPER WATER LEVEL FOR THE WETLAND? Dr. Nick Stow, a biologist and planner with the City of Ottawa, spoke to the Stittsville Village Association last October about the city’s work on the culvert and the health of the wetland.
He said that the overall size of the wetland in 2014 was bigger than it was in 1976. The water level was at a peak in 1999, partly due to beaver activity in the area, and the low point was in 2011.
Stow said he believes over time, the wetland water will increase to an sustainable water level. The timing of the work last fall allowed Blanding’s Turtles, one of the most sensitive species in the area, ample time to relocated to similar wetland areas nearby if the water wasn’t high enough. (They need about 1.1 meters of water over the winter.)
The work done last fall was based on an engineering report that predicted a sustainable water level, but officials haven’t been able to fully evaluate its success (or failure) yet, partly because of the rocks that someone keeps blocking the culvert with. It will also take a few seasons to properly account for fluctuations in temperatures and rainfall.
PART OF THE CONFLICT IS THAT THE MUNICIPAL DRAIN PASSES THROUGH A WETLAND. How do you balance the interest of environmentalists who want to see a high water level maintained, against landowners who want their land as dry as possible?
It’s not quite “wetlands be damned”, but legally, the Municipal Drainage Act trumps the Provincially Significant Wetland designation. If the city doesn’t maintain the drain, they could face a lawsuit from the landowners.
The MVCA and agencies like the MNR do get a say in how the city performs maintenance work along the drain, and attempts are made to mitigate the effect on water life.
In February 2014, the MVCA approved a new policy that prohibits municipal drains from passing through wetlands. So the current route of the Hazeldean Road Municipal Drain would not even be approved today.
MUNICIPAL DRAINS GET ESTABLISHED ALL OVER THE RURAL AREA OF OTTAWA, but few with this level of controversy or attention from residents.
“There’s high awareness of what’s going on there, and you have a lot of concerned citizens,” said Matt Craig, manager of planning and regulations for the MVCA last fall.
“The agencies are concerned as well about it to minimize the impact. It’s an accessible area by the public. The public enjoys that natural space and has concerns about it. It’s a visible area an an important one,” he says.
McRae and his colleagues are convinced that the work that’s been done so far to satisfy the landowners will continue to have a detrimental effect on the wildlife, and will negatively affect the enjoyment of residents who visit the area.
“The fact that a person was able to reach out over the north side of the lookout deck [in 2009] and scoop up a turtle… further demonstrates how high the water level was in the wetland at that time,” says McRae. “There’s no longer enough water for geese except in the early spring … Painted Turtles are seldom seen around the lookout any more because of the lack of sufficient water for them.”
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