Coastal Engineering

Lake Ontario and the coastal marshes are near record highs this spring. While this can lead to sleepless nights due to fears of flooding, the high water also makes for great kayaking and wonderful views at sunset and sunrise.

Port Darlington cottages (click image for larger view)

 

Channel Sunset (click image for larger view)

 

Drydock (click image for larger view)

 

Breakwater (click image for larger view)

 

Electricallusion (click image for larger view)

 

Top photo: Westbound Express (click here for larger view)

Marsh monoculture – invasive phragmites and the threat to wetlands

We’ve all seen those amazingly tall reeds with the feathery seed heads that glow in the autumn sunset and last right through the winter, and which have appeared in dense stands on roadsides wherever there’s a bit of water.

Those beautiful reeds are phragmites, and they’re deadly to nearly every other plant, bird, amphibian and predator in our wetlands.

That was the message in a sobering talk by Janice M. Gilbert on April 19. Since there are two big marshes in my neighbourhood, and phragmites are scattered widely in this area, I was keenly interested.

The species of phragmites (pronounced frag-mite-eez) that is causing so much concern is the European common reed. Though it is closely related to a native variety of phragmites, the European version has no natural controls in North America and quickly multiplies into a dense monoculture.

Dr. Gilbert has been researching phragmites and working in phragmites control efforts for the past 10 years. She spoke at the Purple Woods Conservation Area this week, in an event sponsored by Scugog Environmental Advisory Council in partnership with Central Lake Ontario Conservation, Kawartha Conservation, North Durham Nature, Scugog Lake Stewards and Nature Conservancy of Canada.

Gilbert explained that the European common reed is awesomely prolific because nearly every part of the plant will sprout and grow if dropped in wet soil.

It produces a large seed head, and the seeds can be carried for kilometers by the wind – but that’s just one of its strategies for dispersal. Its rhizomes shoot out for many feet in every direction. And if a live stalk is knocked down, it will send up new shoots all along its length.

Dispersal methods of phragmites. (From Invasive Phragmites – Best Management Practices in Ontario)

This explains why phragmites have spread so widely along highways and rural roads. Heavy equipment used in road construction and maintenance, particularly tracked machinery, carries mud from one site to another. If pieces of phragmites are carried in that mud, and it doesn’t completely dry before being dropped in a new location, a new outbreak of the reed will soon be growing.

Spread of phragmites in the Great Lakes area. (From Invasive Phragmites – Best Management Practices in Ontario)

Habitat destruction

Phragmites take over a location so rapidly because they suck up nutrients and water faster than nearly all competitor plants, and because they are allelopathic – their roots secrete chemicals which are toxic to other plants.

Native insect species have not evolved to feed on phragmites – and that means insect-eating birds don’t find food in a phragmites monoculture. Muskrats don’t like phragmites, so they don’t build their characteristic mounds, surrounded by a bit of open water, within phragmites-dominated marshes. Birds will nest right around the edges of phragmites stands, but not very far within – the stands are too dense. And since a fully-developed phragmites monoculture can have 200 stalks per square meter, the growth is so dense that turtles trying to fight their way through are sometimes trapped, succumbing to starvation.

In short, the entire food chain from bottom to top is disrupted when phragmites take over a wetland.

A tale of two marshes

This ecological horror story is of more than passing local concern. There are two important coastal wetlands in my neighbourhood. In one of them – Westside Marsh – there are already major stands of phragmites all along the west side.

Phragmites are established all along the west edge of Westside Marsh, next to the St. Marys Cement quarry. Photo from Nov 2015.

The other local marsh, Bowmanville Marsh, appears to be phrag-free so far – but there are stands of phragmites barely 100 meters away.

This stand of phragmites is along West Beach Road, just north of Bowmanville Marsh.

 

A stand of phragmites on the south side of Hwy 401, near the Liberty Street exit, extends to within a few meters of Soper Creek. This creek flows south and joins Bowmanville Marsh.

 

A long and difficult battle

The good news is that phragmites infestations can be controlled. The bad news is that the process is labour-intensive, it sometimes requires specialized equipment, efforts need to be repeated at least two or three years in a row, and it is almost impossible to get large stands of phragmites knocked back without application of concentrated glyphosate.

Dr. Gilbert described her own gradual conversion to advocating the use of glyphosate – as a wetland ecologist, her first reaction was to recoil at the thought of using herbicides around wetlands – and her frustration that the glyphosate formulations used to great success in phragmites-control programs in the US are not usually available or permitted in Canada.

In our local area, Diana Shermet of Central Lake Ontario Conservation Authority (CLOCA) confirmed that to date, there have been no phragmites-control programs in Westside Marsh or Bowmanville Marsh. High cost is a major barrier, though CLOCA has received funding and carried out phragmites-control programs in a few areas in Durham region.

As Gilbert noted, successful phragmites-control efforts are usually co-ordinated between several agencies. It does little good to get phragmites out of a marsh if there are stands a few meters away along roadsides. And it does little good to get phragmites out of a ditch along a municipal road, if there are stands along a regional or provincial highway nearby.

The Ontario Phragmites Working Group is providing information and expertise to agencies across the province, and we certainly hope that the provincial government, Durham Region, Municipality of Clarington and CLOCA will find a way to take up this effort in the near future.

Top photo: a stand of phragmites in Westside Marsh, photographed in April 2017. (Click here for larger version)

spectrum of motion

The swift coming of a cold front in recent days brought vibrant colour and motion to the lake shore.

 

‘Horizon’ – Bowmanville West Beach, Lake Ontario, March 10, 2017, 4:44 pm

 

‘Flight’ – Bowmanville West Beach, March 10, 2017, 4:46 pm

 

‘Rivulet’ – Bowmanville West Beach, March 11, 2017, 6:01 pm

 

‘Pier’ – St. Marys Cement docks, Lake Ontario, March 11, 2017, 6:18 pm

 

‘Speed of Light’ – Lake Ontario, Bowmanville, March 8, 2017, 5:31 pm

 

‘Slow Growth’ – Bowmanville Marsh, Lake Ontario, March 12, 2017, 9:36 am

 

‘Depth’ – Bowmanville Marsh, Sunday March 12, 9:45 am

Click photos above for larger versions.

Top photo: ‘Purple splash’ – Port Darlington Lighthouse, Lake Ontario, March 8, 2017, 5:20 pm (click here for larger version)

The autumn of winter

Red-wing blackbirds, finches and grackles are returning. Raccoons and skunks are making their rounds at night. How do they all know it’s spring? For the last few days it hasn’t been the warmth of the air – it must be the warmth of the light.

 

‘Stalks’ (click image for larger version)

 

‘River’

 

‘Light Curves’

 

‘Raccoon Road II’ (click image for larger version)

 

‘Contemplation’ (click image for larger version)

 

‘Alternation’ (click image for larger version)

 

Top photo: ‘From a to b’ (click here for larger version)

Sideways Glances

With sunlight in short supply in southern Ontario for the past month and spring greenery still at least six weeks away, it’s been a challenge to capture much colour in outdoor photos. But that makes every brief break in the clouds all the more precious.

These panoramas were composed in the old-school, 1990s way (pieced together in Photoshop from several shots) rather than the new-fashioned way (waving a smart-phone camera at the landscape and choosing the “create panorama” function).

 

Waterway, Saturday afternoon, February 4 (click here for large version)

 

Breakwater/Snowshower, Monday morning, February 6 (click here for large version)

 

Seating is limited, Monday afternoon, February 6 (click here for large version)

 

Top photo: Winter’s Dawn on Bowmanville Marsh, Saturday morning, February 4 (click here for large version)

the edge of cool

On a breezy Sunday morning in the marsh, the line between open water and thin ice sometimes disappears.

Ripple (click image for larger view)

 

Neon (click image for larger view)

 

Foot (click image for larger view)

 

Flight

Top photo: Reed (click here for larger image)

Down to the waterline

Water levels in Bowmanville Marsh were low in the fall and the water has dropped lower with each freeze/thaw cycle. That means there are new sights to see, and as long as the mud is frozen the whole marsh is easily accessible.

These photos are from Sunday morning, January 15.

 

Stripe (click for larger version)

 

All that glisters (click for larger version)

 

Shroom (click for larger version)

 

Raccoon Road (click for larger version)

 

Rift (click for larger version)


Top photo: Peaks (click here for larger version)

Etchings at a winter sunrise

Six photos, taken on Bowmanville Marsh and the Lake Ontario shoreline. Saturday morning, January 7.

 

Goose Ghost (click for full-size image)

 

Zebra mussel (click for full-size image)

 

Zebra mussel (click for full-size image)

 

Surface Composition (click for full-size image)

 

Luminated feather (click for full-size image)

 

Top photo: Feather, at dawn (click here for full-size image)

St Marys Underground Expansion: Will a mine be a good neighbour to a marsh?

Where do you draw the line between “moderate” and “significant” environmental effects?

Are the dust and diesel emissions from a large mining operation likely to affect the health of an adjacent wetland?

In the case of the St Marys Underground Expansion proposal, those questions would appear to be closely linked.

Under Ontario rules for screening of proposed projects, a Category C project, judged at the outset to have “Moderate Potential Environmental Effects”, faces a less stringent consultation and approval process than a Category D project, which is judged at the outset to have “Significant Potential Environmental Effects”. (See A Class Environmental Assessment for Activities of the Ministry of Northern Development and Mines under the Mining Act.)

The St Marys Underground Expansion has been slotted as Category C. The determination that the project will have only “moderate potential environmental effects” appears to be based substantially on the claim that nearly all of the activities will take place underground, and the surface footprint of the current operation will not change.

But the Project Description doesn’t give serious consideration to the cumulative effects of limestone dust and diesel emissions produced by a doubling of the scale of the extraction activities.

The St Marys operation in Bowmanville is adjacent to a conservation area which includes two marshes – the Westside Marsh and Bowmanville Marsh. Both are designated as provincially significant wetlands, and both are downwind from St Marys when the prevailing westerly and southwesterly winds are blowing.

Graphic adapted from Bowmanville Expansion Project Description, page 12. The lines at bottom marked “Declines” represent the tunnels in and out of the proposed mine.

The current quarrying operation takes out about 4 million tonnes of limestone annually, and the underground mine is projected to take out an additional 4 million tonnes.

The initial plans call for mining and primary crushing to take place underground. All the air that is pumped into the mine will be pumped back out via the exhaust tunnel. There is the potential for dust produced underground to come out with the exhaust flow; the Project Description gives little detail on how dust will be managed.

There will be additional processing of the mined limestone above ground, so there is the potential for more limestone dust being swept up in the wind.

Last but certainly not least, several hundred trucks per day will be required to haul the limestone off to market – at 20 tonnes per truck, the 4 million tonnes per year would fill 200,000 trucks.

How can we be sure that the dust and diesel particulate emissions from all this crushing and trucking will have no “significant environmental effects” on the adjacent marshes? The Project Description neither asks nor answers this question.

In a table discussing Potential Project Effects, the document repeats the same basic phrases in regards to “Areas of ecological importance, including protected areas”, “Views or aesthetics”, “Aquatic species or habitat”, “Terrestrial species or habitat”, “Endangered species”, “Migratory bird species”, “Surface water quality”, and “Soils – contaminants, sedimentation, erosion”. Regarding all these concerns, the Project Description says there will be no significant effects “since all activities will occur beneath the bed of Lake Ontario or within the existing licensed quarry area”.

It is important that in the next phase of the project screening, the possible effects of emissions get more attention in order to ensure that years of marsh rehabilitation work do not go for naught.

Central Lake Ontario Conservation Authority (CLOCA) has this vision for the Westside and Bowmanville Marshes in 2026: “The Marshes are Clean, Green, Blue, Peaceful …. All living things enjoy the protected, tranquil area of the Bowmanville/Westside Marshes Conservation Area. The wooded, old field and wetland areas of the Bowmanville/Westside Marshes provide attractive habitat for abundant wildlife, and a diversity of trees and plants. … Neighbors are implementing effective plans to minimize disruption and noise ….” (Bowmanville/Westside Marshes Conservation Area Management Plan)

But CLOCA reports also make clear that a lot of improvement is needed. A 2006 report indicated that the wetland areas of Westside and Bowmanville Marsh both ranged from “poor to good health”. A 2014 Public Information Centre on Bowmanville Marsh Restoration reported “submerged aquatic vegetation and amphibians in poor condition”, and “birds in fair condition, but showing signs of decline”.

Frogs are thought to be especially sensitive to environmental contaminants, and frogs are remarkably scarce in these marshes now. How much more air-borne pollution will settle in the marshes due to a doubling of heavy equipment emissions at the adjacent quarry/mine? Will frogs, other amphibians, and the many other inhabitants of the marshes be affected?

If the Bowmanville Underground Expansion goes ahead, will “All living things enjoy the protected, tranquil area of the Bowmanville/Westside Marshes”?

Snapping turtle at edge of Bowmanville Marsh, June 21, 2015.

Top photo: St Marys Cement quarry and kiln, February 14, 2016.

at the end of the day

As the sun sinks low the nighttime feeders are venturing out for breakfast, daytime feeders are grabbing a few more bites, and they can all be seen in the best light. Here are some recent photos from Bowmanville Marsh, in Port Darlington on Lake Ontario.