Six Streams Initiative: Water Quality
The Bruce Peninsula Biosphere Association recognizes water quality is fundamental to ecological and human health, and it is a necessary foundation for our region’s economic prosperity. "Clean Water & Clean Beaches" has to be more than a slogan. That is why in 2012 we began the multi-year Six Streams Initiative to reduce phosphorus, nitrates, E.coli, oil and other undesirable elements entering our streams. We have continued to work on several ambitious objectives:
- Gather information on the quality of the water in our streams
- Provide cattle with alternative watering sources, other than streams
- Fix failing septic systems
- Reduce phosphorus and sediment loading from soil erosion into the streams
- Improve shoreline stewardship
In the summer of 2012 the Biosphere Association began to monitor the water quality in six streams that feed into Georgian Bay and Lake Huron. This monitoring is essential to determine if our restoration efforts are making a difference. The streams are
- Stokes River
- Old Woman's River
- Judges Creek
- Swan Lake
- Unnamed Creek flowing into Pike Bay
- Black Creek
Naturally, the water quality in these streams affects Georgian Bay and Lake Huron. Black Creek is a "control" as it flows primarily through Black Creek Provincial Park and its water quality is high. We received funding from the Ontario Trillium Foundation and the Great Lakes Guardian Community Fund to monitor and restore streams, with the support of area landowners and students by:
- facilitating the training of volunteers to become Water Quality Data Collection Technicians
- taking and analyzing water samples
- installing alternative watering systems for cattle
- undertaking volunteer-based restoration projects.
We collect benthic samples in August which are analysed by a taxonomist. A community of benthic macroinvertebrates (aquatic insects, crayfish, clams, snails, and worms) is one of the best indicators of the overall health of a stream. Chemical samples give a snapshot of the water at one moment but benthic macroinvertebrates are living there all the time. The composition of their population will be affected by either periodic episodes of poor water quality or continuous poor water quality. (Please click here for more detail on benthics).
Water chemistry samples are collected after storm events and then are sent to ALS Laboratories for analysis.
The baseline data sets of water chemistry variables from 2013, 2014 and 2015 water sampling to describe stream health in reference to provincial and federal standards have been analysed by Catherine Dielemann of the University of Western Ontario.
The second objective of the Six Streams Initiative is to provide cattle with alternative watering sources, other than streams.
We have developed a cattle watering system which allows us to fence off the streams from cattle but still allow them access to the water through a solar powered system. By doing this it stops the cattle from entering the streams. The cattle do a lot of damage when entering streams as they pollute it with their feces as well as ruin the stream beds and aquatic systems when walking through it. By creating an alternative water system and fencing them out of the streams the pollution is stopped and the water clears and the stream bank vegetation re grows. This past year we continued working with the farming community in South Bruce. We now have 71 cattle watering systems installed around the Peninsula, reducing phosphorus loading by one tonne each year.
We began by gathering information on the initial quality of the water in six streams on the Northern Bruce Peninsula.
With tremendous support from the farming community, Environmental Geo-technologist and Director of the Biosphere Association's Six Streams Initiative, Neils Munk designed an alternate cattle watering system powered by solar energy. Solar power is used to pump water from the stream into water troughs and then the cattle are fenced out of the streams. This provides the cattle with a source of clean water as often when cattle wade into the stream it gets muddy or turbid. Further, cattle can get a disease from wading in the mud called coxioxis. Thus, these systems produce benefits to the farmers as well as ecological benefits.
Alternate Watering Systems
• 71 alternate watering systems installed and maintained in five years
• 17km + of fencing installed
• Vegetated buffer restored on streambanks
• 4,900 + cattle controlled from our streams
• Phosphorus reduction:: one TONNE annually
This work would not be possible without the support of many agencies, farmers and volunteers. Funders have included:
- Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change
- Environment Canada (EcoAction)
- Ontario Trillium Foundation
- Ontario Ministry of Agriculture
- Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry
- Bruce County
- Lake Huron and Georgian Bay Framework for Community Action
Preventing soil erosion into the streams involves several things but stopping the spread of phosphorus rich agricultural soil into the creeks by our ever present wind on the Eastnor flats is an important factor. The Biosphere Association has been promoting the use of cover crops for the winter which helps to protect the soil from being blown into streams and polluting them.
In December 2015, the Biosphere Association initiated a major project to work with the farming community to combat soil erosion into the streams. The Ontario Trillium Foundation is providing $240,000 in support over a three year period starting in 2016.
Why Is it Important?
Farmers apply fertilizer containing phosphorus and nitrates to help crops grow. When soil is washed into the streams after a rainfall event the particulate phosphorus which has attached to the soil particles enters the stream causing not only algae blooms but also cloudiness in the water (known as turbidity) which is harmful as it affects aquatic life in two ways. It changes the temperature of the stream and thus decreases dissolved oxygen and then reduces light penetration which interferes with photosynthesis, limiting the growth of plants upon which aquatic life feeds.
The soil particles that are washed or blown into the streams become sediment and sink to the bottom, covering the pebbles and other materials on the stream bed which are needed by fish to spawn.
This process can also lead to the build up of "muck" on the stream bed which contains phosphorus. This is known as "legacy phosphorus" and can be mobilized during an extreme storm event such as a spring melt and cause algae blooms.
There is a third type of phosphorus known as reactive dissolvable phosphorus which is created when decaying plant matter such as a cover crop is frozen and swept into the stream during January or spring thaws. Nutrients then enter streams through surface flows across the fields. Counterintuitively, the greatest volume and concentration of "phosphorus loading" occurs in the November to April time period and during two or three major storm events during summer and fall.
A large percentage of crop fields in the Northern Bruce are tile drained to allow water to leave the field quickly. Tile drains can be another source of phosphorus entering the watercourse through very fine sediment as the particulate phosphorus attaches itself to the sediment.
Relative Importance of Tile Drains versus Surface Water Flows to Phosphorus Loading
Current research suggests that both tile drains and surface water flows are important sources of total phosphorus loading. Controlling the tile drain release of water and slowing surface waters flows across the fields will create a system that is not a significant source of phosphorus.
What is the Biosphere doing?
We are fortunate that our Vice-Chair, John Rodgers, is a local teacher and multi-generational farmer with a degree in crop science and is taking the lead on this project. From the foregoing you can see that reducing nutrient loading from soil erosion is very complicated so we have enlisted the support of Professor Merrin McCrae a phosphorus specialist from Waterloo, and Professor Jacklyn Cockburn, a sediment specialist from Guelph. We are working with them to strengthen water testing protocols and to implement best practices to reduce soil erosion.
Through an Outreach and Education grant from the Great Lakes Agricultural Stewardship Initiative (GLASI) we are working with farmers to create two demonstration sites and will evaluate their effectiveness in Northern Bruce conditions.
How Does a WASCoB Fight Soil Erosion?
Building a WASCoB will be the subject of the first demonstration site and it will be constructed in August. Essentially it can be thought of as a berm or speed bump in the field. Rather than rushing over a field bringing soil particles with it, water will be held water back by the WASCoB, allowing it to be absorbed into the ground.
What is the Advantage of "NO TILL"?
Certain tillage (plowing) patterns are also considered to reduce soil erosion. We have a demonstration site offering a side by side field comparison of no-till and partial till. In no-till you do not disturb the soil very much which makes it less susceptible to erosion. We will conduct before and after water sampling at the stream to determine if using no-till reduces phosphorus loading. We will also be developing case studies that not only examine the ecological benefits but also the effect on farm productivity of the different approaches.
To promote adoption of best practices and peer-to-peer knowledge exchange we will also arrange a site tour of farms further south where they are using various techniques to control soil erosion. The Association will arrange "pasture meetings" and a "Crop Producers Club" to facilitate discussions among crop farmers, and with the professors Merrin McCrae and Jacquie Cockburn who advise on how to reduce nutrient loading resulting from soil erosion.
Support for combatting soil erosion is being provided through the Ontario's Soil and Crop Improvement Association from the GLASI Education and Outreach Component fund by the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and RuraI Affairs, and by the Ontario Trillium Foundation.
Reducing soil erosion is a big challenge for the Biosphere Association. We need to strengthen our understanding of not only the amount but also the concentration levels of phosphorus, nitrates and sediment entering streams by tile drains versus surface flows -- and the timing of those flows. This will allow us to assess which management practices are most suitable, and where, and whether they are sustainable.
Alternate Drain Level Control
As mentioned above, the majority of fields for crops on the Bruce Peninsula are tile drained. Alternate drain level control structures are like a stop flow valve. They give farmers control over the water flowing out of the tile drains. By closing the valve, the water from a storm is retained on a field allowing it to be absorbed there. This is especially useful if there is a sudden summer storm during a drought. During spring rains the valves are open so fields dry quickly and crops can be planted.
Water leaving the tile drains contains fine particles of soil with phosphorus attached.
To date, three alternate drain level control structures (AGRI-DRAIN) have been installed to retain moisture on the fields when needed and to reduce phosphorus coming from tile drains.
We are monitoring water quality to determine benefits of an alternate drain level control structure as we have a side-by-side field comparison with and without a control structure.
Strip Grazing - another positive farm practice
Underperforming septic systems impair water quality and we have been working to replace old, faulty systems along shorelines and streams. Old systems tend to leak which allows run off to go into the streams causing pollution so by updating and fixing septic systems it prevents the pollution from running in. This year we again provided $4000 incentives to ten lucky homeowners to replace their failing septic systems and we inspected 24 systems bringing our project totals to 40 septic systems replaced and 120 inspected!
There are hundreds of older septic systems throughout the province that may be polluting nearby bodies of water. Many municipalities, including Northern Bruce Peninsula, do not require re-inspections of existing systems. This means that defective systems often go unchecked. Pollution from septic systems can contaminate our water in a number of ways, such the release of harmful E. coli bacteria, and the creation of algal blooms. For this reason we are continuing to operate this successful project.
So far this year, four, $4000 grant cheques have been written to resident owners, and more funds are available for septic system replacement and repair.
Properly functioning septic systems are particularly important on the Bruce Peninsula because we have karst topography. There are deep crevices in the rock which allow surface and subsurface water to flow directly into groundwater without the natural filtering that occurs in areas with a greater amount of soil cover. Thus there is a possibility (if a septic system is not functioning properly) that E.coli in human fecal matter could enter the groundwater, contaminating it. Groundwater is the water from which residents' well water (i.e. drinking water) is drawn.
Significantly, nitrates could also enter the groundwater and cause "blue baby" syndrome, a very serious condition that can cause death especially for infants under three months old, if a well becomes contaminated. In addition, human excrement also contains phosphorus and if the septic system is near the lakeshore or a stream, the phosphorus could cause an algae bloom.
Septic systems are designed for a specified maximum amount of use and on holiday weekends they can be strained by excess visitors. As well many visitors from the city who rent cottages are not familiar with the best management practices for septic system use and so their use of the system does not allow it to function optimally. As well, many systems have not been maintained. A typical septic system should be inspected and pumped every three years.
The final part of our Six Stream Initiative project is promoting shoreline stewardship which involves increasing public understanding of the critical importance of preserving a natural shoreline, free from shoreline hardening, man made beaches and large permanent docks that stop sediment flow along the coast. For example: a simple solution such as a natural plant buffer between the water and lawn cleanses the storm water run off before it enters the lake.
What the Biosphere Association is doing
We have created three shoreline demonstration gardens and will be arranging tours this summer (2017). These gardens have been specially designed with native plants to act as a filtering mechanism before storm water enters the watercourse.
The Biosphere Association has organized free community workshops about protecting and improving the Bruce Peninsula's shorelines. The workshops shared important information to help property owners protect both the natural features and the value of their properties. It showcased a series of stewardship practices on topics such as:
- Gardening and Landscaping
- Wastewater and Septic Systems
- Storm water Management
- Living with Wiidlife --- and more!
We also created this helpful pamphlet downloadable in PDF format: Landowner’s Guide to a Healthy Shoreline