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Study looks to protect Oshawa’s waterways as city continues to grow

Andrea Kirkwood, an associate professor in UOIT's Faculty of Science, is the lead researcher in a program monitoring pollution in Oshawa's waterways. She says that as development continues to grow, so too does the pollution.

Andrea Kirkwood, an associate professor in UOIT’s Faculty of Science, is the lead researcher in a program monitoring pollution in Oshawa’s waterways. She says that as development continues to grow, so too does the pollution.

By Joel Wittnebel/The Oshawa Express

The city’s north end is booming, but with the construction and the urbanization comes the possibility for contamination. As for how badly Oshawa’s waterways are being impacted, the answer is yet to be determined.

One thing is certain – as the development continues, the City of Oshawa will need to keep an eye on the quality of water in its creeks and streams if it wishes to save the beaches of Lake Ontario from consistent closures.

To keep an eye on this, the Consortium Watercourse Monitoring Program (CWMP), a partnership between the city, the Central Lake Ontario Conservation Authority (CLOCA), and UOIT is tasked with being the whistleblowers for Oshawa’s water quality.

“That’s important information for the city to know,” says Andrea Kirkwood, an associate professor in UOIT’s Faculty of Science and lead researcher in the program.

Kirkwood explains that as the city continues to grow, water quality will be an indicator as to whether it is time to start changing development standards.

“If they’re planning, they have to really start considering, ‘Do we need to continue the old way,’ which is paving everything, which exacerbates the problem of these heavy rain storms,” she says.

Large rain storms, like those seen during 2014, have massive impacts on Oshawa’s waterways, such as Goodman, Oshawa and Montgomery creeks. Erosion, which sees more water rush into the system, has to be monitored as it also brings with it a heavy load of contaminants that eventually make their way to Lake Ontario.

Since 2013, the program has been studying the surface water quality in all of Oshawa’s main creeks, looking at the amount of coliforms, E. coli bacteria, chloride, aluminum and other metals, along with living organisms.  From its inception three years ago, the program has grown from CLOCA’s original two monitoring sites (which have been online since 1964) to a total of 11 and received a contribution of $40,000 per year from city council. In 2016, council also approved $60,000 to undertake a water quality management study for creeks and rivers along the waterfront.

In a recently released report, Kirkwood details the findings of 2015, which show an obvious but startling trend.

“It clearly shows that these really strong storm events are driving pollution into the creeks,” she says. “But also, we found that coliform bacteria were exponentially increasing as you go through the city.”

Due to what is known as cumulative flow, it’s typical for the water quality to decrease as it flows north to south through the city, collecting contaminants along the way. However, it’s not known where the main sources of contamination are. Levels of contaminants were found to exceed provincial standards at some point at all sites during all the years monitored.

In the case of coliforms – bacteria most commonly found in animal waste – it was originally thought that farming in the northern parts of the city were the cause. However, according to Kirkwood, that’s not the case as the number of coliforms begin to spike inside the urban areas.

The culprit remains unknown, but the finger is being pointed at aging infrastructure. For that reason, the CWMP plans to focus its studies on the city’s storm water sewers to be able to pinpoint hotbed areas for coliforms, which will help the city to solve the problem in the future.

“Rather than just trying to spread management or remediation effort, you can actually target your remediation effort,” Kirkwood explains, noting that finding a solution is crucial.

“If you want to be able to be able to swim in your beaches, you kind of have to fix the problem.”

The same sentiment is seen in the city report which states, “the quality of life for residents is reflected in the quality of water in the creeks.”

Certain strategies, such as using more permeable surfaces for sidewalks and parking lots, or increasing vegetative cover on city lands, can all have positive impacts on water quality. In the years to come, the data being gathered by the CWMP can help inform those decisions.

Kirkwood says she has never seen a municipality work in such a manner as Oshawa in addressing these issues.

“I’ve never seen a municipality so proactive and really trying to protect the environment with the less powers that they do have,” she says.