A FINE BALANCE: Study looks at why Goulbourn wetlands are changing

Illustration: Trans Canada Trail look-out, west of Stittsville. June 2016.

(ABOVE: Looking north from the Trans Canada Trail, west of Stittsville, June 2016. Photo illustration.)

“No interrupting, no swearing, no shouting. We’re all here to be heard, and this is a professional meeting,” said the moderator.

She was laying down the ground rules for a public meeting on Monday about the results of a long-awaited study looking at wetlands in the area.

The meeting was one of the last steps in a multi-year process that started over a decade ago. In 2004, a development proposal triggered a review of land southwest of Stittsville by the Ministry of Natural Resources, that identified new Provincially Significant Wetland (PSW).  Provincial law requires that the City amend their Official Plan to recognize the PSW boundaries.

Property owners balked. They said PSW designation would de-value their land and prevent them from developing their property. They also couldn’t believe that property that was fields and farms a few years ago was now being considered wetland.

In 2011, The City agreed to hold off on updating the Official Plan for five years, taking time to study why wetlands were changing in the area, and where the boundaries should be drawn. That study, the Flewellyn Cumulative Effects Study, was recently completed by SLR Consulting from Markham Ontario.

At least 60 residents packed into the old Goulbourn Town Hall on Huntley Road to hear about the study. There were six city officials ready to answer questions, including Rideau-Goulbourn councillor Scott Moffatt and former rural affairs manager Derrick Moodie, but it was project manager and biologist Nick Stow who steered the bulk of the meeting and answered most of the questions.


The study answers three questions: What is the origin and history of wetlands in the area? What is the effect of land use changes? And is there any reason they wouldn’t qualify as Provincially Significant Wetland?

“Truth is, we’re gaining and losing wetlands,” said Stow.

The geography in this area is perfect for wetland: large, low-lying flat areas with surrounding high areas, and hard, impermeable bedrock. On top, there’s a thin layer of soil, just enough to hold the water.

“It’s like a sponge in a soap dish,” explained Stow.  It holds water and creates the wetland.

Stow said that centuries ago, before human intervention, all the low-lying area was “almost certainly” wetland.  But as European settlers arrived and agriculture spread, those original wetlands were drained.

“The balance between wetland and non-wetland is very fine,” said Stow.  Once land stops being drained for agriculture, the wetland returns.

This map shows how wetland area has changed since 1946. Green = more wetland, Orange = lost wetland, Yellow = no change.
This map shows how wetland area has changed since 1946. Green = more wetland, Orange = lost wetland, Yellow = no change. Click for larger size.



Agriculture isn’t the only factor.  Stow said that beaver activity peaked in the area around 1999, and contributed to an increase in wetland area.

Stow said one factor for wetland change that the consultants rejected was water pumped from quarries.  They compared quarry pumping records from the Tomlinson Quarry on Jinkinson Road to flow monitoring devices downstream on Flowing Creek.

Stow said data shows that quarry pumping isn’t having an impact on wetlands or water levels.


There’s an interesting conflict at play between nature and the Ontario Planning Act.  Under the law, the City needs to mark a wetland boundary on a map, but wetlands are constantly changing.  You can’t just draw a line on a map, and expect wetlands to comply.

“We have to keep re evaluating wetlands, but can only set land use once,” said Stow.

In order to set the boundaries, the City will ask about 185 property owners for access to their land so that consultants can do a ground survey. If the property owners don’t grant access, the consultants will use aerial photography instead.

All of the consultant’s boundary mappings will be submitted to the Ministry of Natural Resources in Kemptville for review later this year.  The City expects to formally update the Official Plan in early 2017.



A number of participants at the meeting questioned whether the City and Province even have the jurisdiction to apply zoning bylaws and restrict land use on private property.

Liz Marshall, director of research for Ontario Landowners Association, said that the city does not have authority to zone property they don’t own, name dropping a series of laws from Ontario Planning Act to the British North American Act.

Stow said that the Province and the City’s legal department has advised that the City has the authority under the Ontario Planning Act to designate land use.  Councillor Moffatt said that he’s not aware of any case law to suggest it’s illegal for municipalities to pass zoning bylaws.


Terry Hale, president of the Goulbourn Landowners Group, says his group has been asking the city to do a better job at clearing ditches in the area, and that they haven’t been living up to their responsibilities for ditch management. (City staff says they’ve done what’s necessary to keep their ditches and culverts clear.)

Another resident asked if the money spent on studies could have been better spent on digging more ditches.  Around 2006, property owners petitioned the City to build and maintain a municipal drain. The original estimated cost for the work was around $250,000.

When the final estimate came in at about $3-million, with landowners required to cover about $1.3-million of the cost, the petitioners backed out.  A municipal drain never went ahead.

Moffatt said at the meeting on Monday night that the financial concerns of residents could have been addressed.  He said that other parties could have been brought on board to share the cost with landowners.

“Six other rural municipal drain projects have gone ahead [since becoming councillor], this is the only project that hasn’t,” said Moffatt.


Erwin Dreessen of the Ottawa Greenspace Alliance asked why Phase 2 of the study was being dropped. He said it would have included a mapping of organic soils, which gives a more accurate measurement of current and historical wetland cover.

Stow said the study was dropped because it would be cumbersome, intensive, and wouldn’t provide any information that would change the current wetland boundary re-evaluation.


Here’s a copy of Nick Stow’s powerpoint presentation from Monday night.


1 thought on “A FINE BALANCE: Study looks at why Goulbourn wetlands are changing”

  1. Can Stittsville leave Ottawa and become Goulbourn again? I am of the opinion that I am asking on behalf of the majority. If Britain can Brexit then Stittsville can Stout

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