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Vision for Virgil ponds includes islands, nature park

This is the area where islands could create habitat and educational opportunities alike.
This is the area where islands could create habitat and educational opportunities alike.  (Owen Bjorgan)

There could be a permanent solution in the works to the ongoing problem of vandalism at the Four Mile Creek reservoir and dams, but it involves a long-term plan, and likely a lot of money.

Brett Ruck, the irrigation and drainage superintendent and environmental supervisor at the town, has a vision for the future of the creek, the dams and the two 50 acre man-made ponds, that could allow the area to be enjoyed as a nature park by the community, while also improving the creek as an irrigation system for local farmers.

Neighbours bordering the creek and the upper and lower ponds see the area as a beautiful nature preserve, under the auspices of the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority.

An NPCA document describes the area as “ideal for a leisurely stroll or a picnic with the family. Surrounded by farm fields, the Virgil Dam Conservation Area is a hidden oasis on the edge of town.”

Recreational fishing for carp and large-mouth bass is a popular activity on the creek, with licences required and following provincial regulations and seasonal restrictions, the NPCA says, and canoeing and kayaking on the creek is also possible “if you can find an appropriate place to launch your boat.”

In recent years, there has been much concern amongst neighbours over recurring vandalism to the dams, which has periodically lowered the water levels, appearing to endanger habitat and wildlife.

In August, 13-year-old Morgan Mitchell wrote a letter to The Local about the creek. For most of his life, he said, he has lived on the Virgil lower reservoir, and loves to spend time “kayaking and fishing in this amazing ecosystem.”

He had read an article in The Local, by environmentalist Owen Bjorgan,  about the deteriorat-ing state of Four Mile Creek, the largest watershed in Niagara-on-the-Lake, and wrote about the problems with water flow in his area due to vandalism.

“Our section of the creek was man-made, having been flooded to supply water for irrigation in the nearby farms, but has grown over the years into a huge ecosystem, supporting many species of amphibians, birds, and fish. When these incidents happen, the creek, which isn’t very deep, drains so much that fish get trapped in the shallows and die.

This impacts the whole ecosystem because the species that are dependent on the fish will lose their main food source. When these boards come out it takes longer than it should for the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority to replace them, and currently, our creek is experiencing one of the worst water level drops this year.”

He called on the NPCA to invest in a better system for the dam.

When neighbour David Murray read the letter, and saw nothing was being done, he called the NPCA, believing a young boy trying to advocate for something important to him shouldn’t be ignored.

Since then, a temporary solution has been found, with the NPCA saying they were working with town staff on something more permanent with the town.

Since then, Murray has been pushing for the relatively new CAO of the NPCA for that permanent solution, “or at least a better temporary solution,” he says and recently, was told there would be a meeting at the site Friday afternoon, with the NPCA and town staff. He planned to attend, with Morgan Mitchell, who was the person most entitled to hear their plan, after raising the issue, says Murray.

However, at the last minute, the meeting was cancelled, with no reason provided. Although it was a rainy day, “they didn’t even use that excuse,” says Murray, who is assuming there isn’t a solution to present. 

What neighbours are learning now, thanks to Mitchell and others, is that although the NPCA owns the area and is currently responsible for remediation, the ponds are first and foremost considered a source of irrigation for farmers, and it is the job of town staff to control the dams by removing boards so that water flows over them, ensuring enough water for farmers when they need it.

Except that somebody — possibly kids, or farmers, says Ruck, or fishermen, others have suggested — keeps removing boards from the dams, thus lowering the water level in the ponds.

And it will require the town and NPCA staff working together to find a long-term solution to prevent it from recurring.

The ponds are quite deep, Ruck says, about eight feet, but the built-up sediment, a significant issue affecting irrigation, is about six feet deep in places. When neighbours see what looks like loss of habitat from decreasing water levels, it is the result of the large amount of sediment, he explains, and he has a plan to fix that.

The town has a permit to take water from the system for irrigation, he says, going back decades. Water is pumped from the area of the Ontario Power Generation Sir Adam Beck Generating Station reservoir on the Niagara River, and is released into the irrigation system beginning at Highway 405 and Sand Plant Hill, for about 20 or more farmers to draw water from it, through St. Davids, Virgil and eventually to Lake Ontario.

The town’s provincial permit allows it to take  5,200 gallons a minute of water for irrigation, but the town only has the ability to put 2,000 gallons a minute through the system, says Ruck — it just can’t pump any more than that.

And if farmers need more water than is available, it can take up to three days to get it to St. Davids, not always a timeline that works for farmers when they require it for irrigation.

Since 2011, farmers who draw water from the system have been allowed to put dams in the creek to keep water in it, he adds.

Another problem is the sediment slowing the flow of water, and Ruck’s long-term vision includes a plan to deal with it, that would be considerably cheaper than removing it. It could take “millions and millions of dollars to truck it away,” he says.

He envisions installing traps to reduce the sediment that is slowing the flow of water, and would like to see the sediment moved and tamped down to create islands that could be used as nature parks and bird habitats, while also aiding the flow of water around them.

“From a conservation point of view, this is gold standard,” he says, while at the same time helping to deliver water for irrigation purposes. 

He would also like to see a weir to control the flow of water in the ponds, and ladders to help salmon move through the system.

Hundreds of salmon die because they can’t get over the dams, he says. The ladders would move the salmon further along, and could be part of “an educational piece to let kids watch fish try to jump up into lower reservoir. How neat would that be?”

He’s also talked to NOTL Hydro about getting power to the community park element of his plan, and has been told it’s possible, with steady flow of water.

“There are all kinds of things that could be done,” he says. “It’s up to our imagination to see how we move forward.”

Ruck was talking to the town’s environmental committee last week about his vision for the creek and ponds, and planned to share it with neighbours and NPCA staff Friday afternoon at the meeting by the pond at Line 2, but once it was cancelled, didn’t have the opportunity.

Kim Killean, a neighbour of the ponds who has also been concerned about loss of habitat due to vandalism to the dams, says he met recently with Rob Shoalts, a representative of the NPCA, onsite.

Killean learned that originally, there was no wooden board retaining system on top of the concrete dam, and Shoalts was responsible for designing the current system as a stop-gap measure when the original valve system for controlling water flow became inoperable and unrepairable.

Shoalts pointed out that during COVID restrictions, there has been a major uptick in vandalism on conservation property across the region, including in Virgil. 

The boards that have been tampered with by vandals have now been secured, using “metal frames that essentially make the boards almost impossible to remove,” Killean explains. “This was very good to see.”

But he was also told it’s still considered a temporary solution, requiring something permanent devised in collaboration by the town and the NPCA.

When The Local reached out to the NPCA, a spokesperson said “the discussions with the town are still ongoing, and there is no concrete update we can provide at this time.”

When Ruck presented his vision to the town’s environmental advisory committee last week, Coun. Gary Burroughs, a member of the committee, told Ruck he was “excited about the potential of the sediment islands.”

But he also asked whether it is a plan that could come to fruition in his lifetime.

That depends on the funding, says Ruck. Farmers “aren’t going to pay for moving sediment.”

His idea could be considered a community project, and could qualify for funding from upper levels of government. The process  would have to start with a plan, moving forward “slowly and methodically” to get the required funding.

It would also require the acquisition of the property by the town, from the NPCA. “Nobody’s going to give us funding if we don’t own the property,” says Ruck.

And although that subject has been broached, and has been approved in council’s recent support of the town’s irrigation master plan, discussions with the NPCA haven’t started.

So to answer the Burroughs’ question about when the vision could become a reality, he answered, “I don’t know.”

The real question, says Murray, “is whether it will happen in 13-year-old Morgan Mitchell’s lifetime.”