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.
— 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.
email@example.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.