Speed River comes back to life

Five rivers de­fine our re­gion: The Nith, the Con­estogo, the Eramosa, the Speed and the mighty Grand. In this week’s in­stal­ment of The Wa­ter­shed we tell the story of the Speed River.

Waterloo Region Record - - Front Page - GREG MERCER

— Less than 50 years ago, this river was dead.

Choked with ex­treme al­gae blooms, bac­te­ria, sewage fun­gus and in­dus­trial dis­charge, the lower Speed River be­tween Guelph and Cam­bridge was strug­gling to sus­tain al­most any aquatic life.

The trout that had once teemed be­low its sur­face had dis­ap­peared. Birds and bugs that were a key part of its ecosys­tem were dwin­dling. The wa­ter was murky and sep­tic-smelling.

“In the 1970s, that por­tion of the river was lit­er­ally dead. There was very lit­tle oxy­gen left in the wa­ter ... Noth­ing was liv­ing in it,” said

San­dra Cooke, se­nior wa­ter qual­ity su­per­vi­sor with the Grand River Con­ser­va­tion Author­ity.

To­day, the lower part of the Speed River is on the re­bound. It’s home to snap­ping tur­tles, mink, beavers, muskrat, dozens of bird species and fish such as pike, trout and bass.

Thanks to im­prov­ing en­vi­ron­men­tal pro­tec­tions and decades of work to re­store it, the Speed is once again a source of life. It’s be­come a recre­ation hub in the mid­dle of a city.

“It’s gor­geous. A kid up the river just caught a large­mouth bass,” said Ron King, 69, out for a kayak pad­dle in down­town Guelph af­ter watch­ing some samba danc­ing in the park.

It wasn’t al­ways so gor­geous. The river that had drawn so much set­tle­ment to Guelph, He­speler and Pre­ston, and pow­ered their early

in­dus­tries, had been killed by the pop­u­la­tions who re­lied on it.

By the mid-1960s, work had be­gun to re­duce pol­lu­tion in the river. In­dus­trial waste from Hart Chem­i­cals and Fiber­glas Canada was rerouted into Guelph’s mu­nic­i­pal san­i­tary sewer sys­tem.

Other big pol­luters, such as the Matthews-Wells Ltd. and Stan­dard Brands fac­to­ries, were shut­tered, elim­i­nat­ing ma­jor sources of con­tam­i­na­tion.

But even with these im­prove­ments, the river re­mained in cri­sis. In Cam­bridge, the dis­charge from the Do­min­ion Wool­lens & Worsteds and Stamped & Enam­elled Ware fac­to­ries was still be­ing dumped into the river.

Dye from the fac­to­ries oc­ca­sion­ally turned the river red, or black.

Rocks on the river­bank were tinted orange from the bac­te­ria. Sewage fun­gus was thriv­ing. The only wildlife that seemed be sur­viv­ing were pol­lu­tion-tol­er­ant sludge­worms.

One of the big­gest prob­lems was the Guelph sewage treat­ment plant, which was pour­ing vast amounts of ef­flu­ent into the river. As the city’s pop­u­la­tion ex­ploded, it left the Speed River a bub­bling, stink­ing mess — not the kind of river you would want to pad­dle on.

“The He­speler reser­voir was choked with aquatic weeds and de­com­pos­ing al­gae mats floated on the sur­face. Gas bub­bles from bot­tom ooze in the reser­voir were ev­i­dence of the ac­tive de­com­po­si­tion oc­cur­ring some seven miles be­low the Guelph sewage treat­ment plant,” read a 1971 study for the Min­istry of the En­vi­ron­ment.

The con­struc­tion of the Guelph Dam and reser­voir in 1976 helped. It pro­vided a steady flow of wa­ter to help flush the dis­charge down­stream. Mod­ern­iz­ing sewage treat­ment, and im­prov­ing in­fra­struc­ture to han­dle a grow­ing pop­u­la­tion’s waste, played an even big­ger role, Cooke said.

A new mu­nic­i­pal waste­water plant built in He­speler also started di­vert­ing in­dus­trial dis­charge.

“Now, the river is do­ing very well. It’s been a com­plete re­cov­ery,” she said. “It’s not been overnight, but it’s re­ally is a good news story.”

We started pad­dling the Speed River where it joins its trib­u­tary, the Eramosa River, in down­town Guelph. It’s very much an ur­ban river at that point, with peo­ple loung­ing by its con­crete banks on park benches, eat­ing ice-cream cones, play­ing lawn bowl­ing and hav­ing fast-food picnics.

The pad­dling is good and the wa­ter is deep here be­cause of the

McCrae Street dam. The only haz­ard is dodg­ing the flocks of geese and ducks, who are drawn here be­cause of the park­lands that sur­round the wa­ter and be­cause so many peo­ple feed them.

We met one of those bird­feed­ers sit­ting in the bushes by the river, while he was getting a head start on Ot­tawa’s plans to le­gal­ize cannabis.

“You’re go­ing to Cam­bridge? ” he ex­claimed, in be­tween puffs, as if we told him we were pad­dling to Hud­son Bay.

Af­ter a short portage around the dam, you be­gin to see the river in its more nat­u­ral state. But there are still a se­ries of smaller dams that you have to con­tend with as you leave the city. When the wa­ter level is high enough, you can usu­ally pad­dle right over the top of them.

Once you pass un­der­neath the roar of the Han­lon Ex­press­way bridge, you can see and hear the rum­ble of the mu­nic­i­pal sewage treat­ment plant. Pad­dling by it to­day, there’s lit­tle in­di­ca­tion it was such a source of pol­lu­tion just a few decades ago.

Be­yond the plant, the river is in full come­back mode. It feels wild and un­tamed dur­ing the many long, lonely, stretches on the pad­dle be­tween Guelph and Cam­bridge, where it joins the Grand River.

The river’s edge was lush and green. With the hot hu­mid weather and vines climb­ing up the trees hang­ing over the wa­ter, it felt al­most trop­i­cal. Dragon­flies buzzed across the wa­ter and tiny cray­fish swam be­neath the sur­face.

Once we left the city be­hind, we saw the Speed River as it used to be. The stretch be­tween Guelph and He­speler is heav­ily wooded, with lit­tle signs of devel­op­ment ex­cept

for old Dolime Quarry out­side of town, a clus­ter of cot­tages, a trailer park and the odd coun­try home on the river.

Ospreys and great herons stalked us along the river as we went, feast­ing on the small fish that have re­turned to the river.

We had the river to our­selves for most of the trip, ex­cept for a fa­ther and son fish­ing at Black Bridge, and a young cou­ple out for a pad­dle nearby.

“It’s sur­pris­ing that I have this in my back­yard,” said Chris Im­rie, test­ing out a new kayak.

The wa­ter lev­els im­proved as we be­gan to ap­proach the He­speler reser­voir. We saw the spire of St. An­drew’s He­speler Pres­by­te­rian Church, an­nounc­ing our re­turn to civ­i­liza­tion, be­fore we saw the rest of the town.

The im­pact of the dam at Ja­cob’s Land­ing can be felt far up­stream, cre­at­ing a large lagoon filled with wildlife. A con­fer­ence of herons pa­trolled the reser­voir, look­ing for din­ner.

Be­yond the dam, we saw the re­mains of the old woollen and tex­tile mills that had turned He­speler into an in­dus­trial hub.

It had taken us most of the day to get this far, so we had to end our trip here. It sud­denly felt very hot. We pulled our ca­noe up by a small wooden dock, and dove into the cool, deep wa­ter just above the dam.

It was a per­fect place for a swim. Just a few decades ago, you wouldn’t dream of do­ing this.

gmercer@there­cord.com Twit­ter: @MercerRecord

DAVID BEBEE WATER­LOO RE­GION RECORD

Greg Mercer helps guide the ca­noe through a rocky set of rapids on the Speed River.

DAVID BEBEE WATER­LOO RE­GION RECORD

Huge piles of waste stone left from the Dolime Quarry back right up to the edge of the Speed River in the Guelph area.

Miguel Ca­panas casts his fish­ing rod near the his­toric Black Bridge over the Speed River in He­speler.

The sun sinks low above the Speed River in the He­speler area of Cam­bridge.

Two swans feed in the veg­e­ta­tion rich wa­ters of the Speed River above the dam in the He­speler area of Cam­bridge.

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