By Geoff Peach, Lake Huron Centre for Coastal Conservation, and Doug Brown, Lurgan Beach Association and founding chair of the Pine River Watershed Improvement Network
Posted beaches warning against swimming and mounds of rotting algae washing up on beaches are a powerful motivator for grassroots action. Beaches in the Township of Huron-Kinloss have been plagued with these problems in recent years, giving local cottagers concern that their beach was no longer swimmable and that their property values could be affected by deteriorating water quality. More fundamentally, they were becoming concerned that the special coastal environment to which many sought refuge was becoming polluted by expansive farming operations and increasing shoreline development.
The Township of Huron-Kinloss is mid-way along Ontario’s Lake Huron shoreline, and is drained by the Pine River watershed. Water testing by the municipality over the past nine years has indicated that the water draining out of the Pine River into Lake Huron has been chronically polluted with high bacteria and nutrients. Nearshore lake testing by the local Health Unit has also suggested that bacterial impairment of local beaches has become a chronic problem in recent years.
Three beach associations in Huron-Kinloss, representing about 700 cottagers, identified these water quality concerns as far back as the late 1990s. The Association presidents met regularly to discuss this common issue of concern. Recognizing that water impairments originated well beyond the shoreline, the Lurgan Beach Association and the Lake Huron Centre for Coastal Conservation pulled together a working committee represented by cottagers, farmers, the municipality, the Coastal Centre, Health Unit, Ontario Federation of Agriculture, Pine River Boat Club, and the Saugeen Valley Conservation Authority to discuss how local water quality improvements could be made. Calling itself the Pine River Watershed Improvement Network (Pine River WIN), the objective from the outset was to take a positive, collaborative approach to water quality improvement. The committee wanted to make a concerted effort to avoid the traditional finger pointing between farmers and cottagers that beset other communities along the lakeshore. Having people work together from the beginning was considered the key to the success of this committee.
A number of guest speakers were invited to speak to the committee on topics ranging from nutrient management to natural channel design. As the committee became more knowledgeable and confident, it decided that, to better facilitate the planning and execution of action related projects, it needed to become a “Committee of Council.” In 2005, Township Council officially recognized the committee, giving it status as a Committee of Council.
The committee then decided that, global study and planning was helpful but specific targets and projects were necessary. Otherwise, committee interest would wane. They also decided that given the fact that the watershed was primarily farmed land, action projects should be targeted to assisting local farmers. Using the motto “keep it simple,” initial projects would include fencing cattle from the river, planting trees, developing buffers, and construction of cattle crossings. Stimulated by the possibility of funding from Environment Canada’s “Adopt-a-Watershed Pilot Project” (December 8, 2005), the committee worked to secure funding, find local partners and begin implementation. By spring 2006, projects were underway.
Environment Canada was looking for some pilot watersheds in southern Ontario in which to promote its community-based Adopt-a-watershed program. Fortunately, the existence, make up and goals of the Pine River WIN fit well into the criteria of the Adopt-a-watershed pilot project” outline.
Seed funding, in the amount of $25,000 per year was made available to the committee to get some of these projects off the ground. The initial projects were chosen in highly visible areas where the community-at-large could see that efforts were underway to make improvements.To help people identify the project sites, and further encourage public thinking towards improving water quality in the watershed, signs were installed facing the local roadways. Additionally, a display booth with maps, committee information and literature was set up at the local fall fair. Information and educational updates have been included in Township mailings.
As part of the Adopt-a-watershed initiative, Environment Canada requested that the committee distribute a survey within the community to both farm and non-farm landowners. The survey was designed to gain a better understanding of the local stewardship practices. The committee hired a person to conduct these face-to-face surveys during the summer of 2006.
Approximately 150 surveys were completed, the results of which should be known by the end of the year. The surveys will help the committee, and Environment Canada, better understand how township residents currently manage their land, and what ‘best stewardship practices’ need to be promoted in Huron-Kinloss.
In the meantime, the committee continues to work on developing further practical and educational projects for 2007. The Pine River Watershed Improvement Network is a good example of a grassroots initiative where a group of committed volunteers can take a vision and make tangible efforts to improve the health of their local watershed. We may not see a decline in beach postings anytime soon, but importantly, local citizens have seen a problem, and realize that waiting for government, or “someone else,” to provide solutions could be a long wait… and may not have the same positive results.
For information: Geoff Peach,
Lake Huron Center for Coastal Conservation
P.O. Box 178, Blyth, Ontario, Canada N0M 1H0
PH: (519) 523-4478 • Fax: (519) 523-4929