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


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


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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