Partnerships in Practice: Respecting Different Goals by Working Together on the Beaver Creek Municipal Drain

Table of Contents

  1. Define Success
  2. Challenges
  3. What We Didn't Know Before the Beaver Creek Project
  4. What We Hoped to Answer
  5. How Did We Do It?
  6. What Did We Learn from the Beaver Creek Project?
  7. Next Steps

Biological diversity has ecological, social, economic, cultural and intrinsic value, and is an important part of sustainable social and economic development. Throughout the world, species of animals, plants and other organisms are being lost forever at an alarming rate. The loss of these species is most often due to human activities, especially activities that disrupts the habitats of these species.

This is a map showing the Beaver Creek watershed and its geographic location.

This is a map showing the Beaver Creek watershed and its geographic location.

The Beaver Creek Municipal Drain is a drainage works under the Drainage Act ("municipal drain") established by municipal by-law in 1895 and 1903. The Beaver Creek Municipal Drain is vital to the drainage of roads and local properties in the Fort Erie area. It is 12.1 km long, and its entire watershed manages approximately 3750 hectares of rural property in the Town of Fort Erie ("The Town") and the City of Port Colborne.

The Town was unaware of its municipal drain status until a routine file search uncovered the information.

As a drainage system, the Beaver Creek Municipal Drain was functioning very poorly. Agricultural lands, residential properties and roads were all periodically subjected to flooding. The Town of Fort Erie faced liability if it did not fulfill its responsibilities under the Drainage Act.

This is a picture of a snapping turtle found in the Beaver Creek Municipal Drain.

This is a picture of a snapping turtle found in the Beaver Creek Municipal Drain.

The Beaver Creek Municipal Drain provides habitat for the grass pickerel, a species of special concern under the Species at Risk Act, as well as threatened and endangered species of turtles. Much of the land near the drain is identified by authorities as a provincially significant wetland.

The Town acknowledged the ecological sensitivity of the provincially significant wetland. The Town wanted to balance its legal drainage responsibilities with the habitat, conservation and wetland protection requirements, through the strategic re-design of the drain, combined with a research project to evaluate results.

Understanding Perspectives

Using the project scoping concept, the Beaver Creek Municipal Drain Steering Committee was comprised of representatives from:

  • Town of Fort Erie
  • Fisheries and Oceans Canada
  • Ministry of Natural Resources
  • Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs
  • Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority
  • Not-for-profit groups Friends of Fort Erie Creeks and Bert Millar Nature Club
  • Educational institutions University of Guelph and Niagara College
  • Several other private corporations also provided technical expertise (listed on final page)

A group of the project partners gathered to inspect the work to date and to celebrate progress.

A group of the project partners gathered to inspect the work to date and to celebrate progress.

It was imperative that the project partners understood the historical circumstances that gave rise to the current situation.

Municipal drains have been a fixture of rural Ontario's infrastructure since the 1800's. Most municipal drains were constructed to improve the drainage of agricultural land by serving as the discharge point for private agricultural tile drainage systems. However, they also remove excess water collected by roadside ditches, residential lots, churches, schools, industrial lands, commercial lands and any other properties in rural areas. They are a vital component of the local infrastructure. Without them, many areas of the province would be subjected to regular flooding, erosion, reduced production from agricultural land and increased public health risks.

Legislation designed to conserve wetlands and protect the habitats of threatened and endangered species is relatively new, compared to the Drainage Act. The federal and provincial governments expressed their support for protection of sensitive habitats and endangered species, with the implementation of the Species at Risk Act, Endangered Species Act, and Conservation Authorities Act. The challenge for landowners, municipalities and regulatory agencies is to meet the intent and responsibilities of the various programs.

Define Success

The Steering Committee identified key outcomes to measure the success of the project from the perspective of each of the partners. Success for the agricultural community and municipality was the reduction of flooding and erosion. For the drainage industry and the Town, success meant the implementation of unique drainage designs in sensitive habitats, easing the path for acquiring permits in other municipal drains in future.

For OMAFRA, success resulted from the achievement of agricultural drainage. Communication, education and outreach about the drainage techniques used and agricultural best management practices to be incorporated in sensitive habitats complimented our environmental and sustainability programs. Demonstration of the benefits of bringing diverse stakeholders together to reduce the costs and frustration in municipal drain projects was an additional benefit.

For the environmental agencies, improvements to habitat, reduction in potential harm to sensitive habitats in drainage projects, and increased knowledge of the life cycle or habitat of sensitive species were positive achievements.

Challenges

The management capacity of the drain was limited by the lack of maintenance and increase in volumes of storm water flow. Remedying the erosion problems surrounding Beaver Creek Municipal Drain properly would require changes to in-field management practices, as well as changes to the drainage designs in the area. Local landowners adopted best management practices regarding tillage, nutrient management, and crop rotations.

The Town of Fort Erie was required to apply for permits from Fisheries and Oceans Canada, the Ministry of Natural Resources and the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority before any work could be done. Vital information about the life cycle and habitat requirements of the species at risk was missing or unknown, which made it difficult to complete the permit applications accurately.

What We Didn't Know Before the Beaver Creek Project

There is a wide range in municipal drain designs and approaches to their management, all which have an impact on the type and extent of habitat to be found, and which species choose to live there. The project team sought to identify ways to clarify legislative needs and seek out opportunities to improve the habitat.

This is a picture of the agricultural land that relies on the Beaver Creek Municipal Drain for drainage, and to prevent flooding and erosion.

This is a picture of the agricultural land that relies on the Beaver Creek Municipal Drain for drainage, and to prevent flooding and erosion.

The relationship between species at risk and their habitat within the municipal drains was not available at a level that was useful to drainage superintendents or biologists. A thorough understanding of that relationship was necessary for the application and completion of permit requirements by drainage superintendents, but also to inform biologists about potential permit conditions.

This is a picture of part of the Beaver Creek Municipal Drain after the maintenance had been completed.

This is a picture of part of the Beaver Creek Municipal Drain after the maintenance had been completed.

There are volumes of information on common species of fishes and turtles in Ontario, but a lack of data on the habitat and life cycles of endangered species, since there are so few populations to study. As well, their status as special concern, threatened or endangered could well have been a result of relatively recent ecological changes or damages. Without a thorough understanding of the life cycle and habitat requirements, appropriate changes in drainage design and construction could not be made, and permit conditions lacked scientific rationale.

This is a picture of grass pickerel in a net, which were captured as part of the research project then released back into the Beaver Creek.

This is a picture of grass pickerel in a net, which were captured as part of the research project then released back into the Beaver Creek.

OMAFRA recognized early that a unique approach to this situation was required for the benefit of the project as well as the advantage of similar projects across Ontario.

What We Hoped to Answer

The OMAFRA/University of Guelph study focused on re-designed drainage techniques that would result in: the least amount of potential adverse impacts on the grass pickerel; the length of time required for the populations to re-colonize after construction activities; and which stewardship practices could be incorporated into the sustainable management of the drain to maximize benefits to agriculture.

Erosion on agricultural land in Fort Erie.

Erosion on agricultural land in Fort Erie.

This corresponded with studies by Fisheries and Oceans Canada and the Ministry of Natural Resources on the habitat and life cycles of the threatened and endangered wildlife found in the Beaver Creek Municipal Drain. The results of the collaborative research initiatives would benefit all the partners.

How Did We Do It?

The Steering Committee meetings provided a forum for project partners to ensure their interests, goals and objectives were acknowledged to the best extent possible. Everyone was provided with up-to-date status reports of the research and the re-design of the drain. Research techniques, methodologies, and key messages were identified. Technical and financial resources were brought to the table to benefit the overall project.

Grant applications were discussed, debated and agreed upon. Over $400, 000 was obtained from grant applications, which helped to offset costs to the landowners and the Town, but also provided valuable data to other project partners.

Grass pickerel tracking station.

Grass pickerel tracking station.

The drainage engineers involved in the project identified the requirements for a sustainable drain design, accounting for water quantity and quality. The biologists identified the requirements for aquatic and terrestrial habitat, which were then built into the design of the drain.

What Did We Learn from the Beaver Creek Project?

The construction on the Beaver Creek Municipal Drain began in fall, 2011, and was completed in the spring of 2012. OMAFRA and Fisheries and Oceans research will wrap up in 2013, while MNR research will continue for an extended period of time with the help of community groups. Successes can be attributed to each project partner.

  • The engineers and scientists involved in the re-design of the drain have created self-sustaining water flow within the channel. There will be less maintenance required in the future and, therefore less disruption to the habitat.
  • This design included areas within the Beaver Creek area that act as storage areas at times when water volume is high. Narrow channels increase the velocity of the water in areas that are not appropriate for flooding. This helps to flush sediment through the system, which can otherwise act as a barrier if it settles.
  • Farmers in the area reported that land that has historically been very wet, dried up faster in the spring, allowing them to get on the land earlier. This will have a positive impact on their crop yield.
  • An additional 20 inches of water storage was created in roadside ditches within the municipal drainage system. This increases the system's ability to manage larger storm events which occur in a short duration.
  • Sediment transport has been controlled through the combined use of field runoff management, hydraulically controlled pools, rip rap and Newbury weirs.

Brush mattress using native species.

Brush mattress using native species.

Root wad using trees felled in construction.

Root wad using trees felled in construction.

Deflector logs that will slow water velocity and provide fish habitat.

Deflector logs that will slow water velocity and provide fish habitat.

  • The grass pickerel was found to be more abundant than previously known. Seventy percent of the fishes caught in the Beaver Creek Municipal Drain were grass pickerel.
  • While the majority of grass pickerel stay where their food source is located, some of the larger fish travel along the drain, even in winter. This makes the continuous flow of the channel important.
  • Adult grass pickerel feed on the juveniles, so appropriate habitat had to be incorporated into the drain that allowed the smaller fish to hide from predators ("littoral shelves").
  • Research showed that the grass pickerel can live in conditions that were more extreme than previously thought, such as turbid water and drought conditions.
  • Turtle beaches created to the specifications provided by the Toronto Zoo were used by snapping turtles in 2012, reducing mortalities on roadways.
  • Native species of plants used in the reconstruction of the drain area were abundant, even in the dry conditions in 2012. Native species are much more resilient to changes in weather patterns and extreme conditions, which in turn, increases the stability of the overall drainage system.
  • Costs were reduced through the "recycling" of materials within the drain, which also simulated natural processes. Stumps from felled trees were used as fish habitat. Logs were used to act as buffers to slow down water velocity. Rocks were used for turtle basking areas and for barriers to prevent ice jams near road allowances. Native wetland seeds were harvested from within the drain for reseeding.
  • During the dry conditions in 2012, hundreds of grass pickerel and other fishes were found in the in-line pools and wetland ponds created in the municipal drain. This shows the recovery of the fish species post-construction.
  • Seemingly contradictory regulatory requirements can be overcome through project scoping meetings which bring together project partners. Data can be shared among the team members which is mutually beneficial.

Next Steps

The draft federal Grass Pickerel Management Plan was posted on the Species at Risk Registry in February, 2012. Project partners submitted comments on the draft policy based on the methodology of the project. The Management Plan will be reassessed every five years, and it will be important to incorporate the lessons learned from the research on the grass pickerel population in Fort Erie.

Monitoring continues in tracking the fish and turtles within the drain. Young grass pickerel were observed in the municipal drain immediately following construction, but longer term monitoring will identify the growth of the population within the constructed areas. The Town has committed to monitoring the fish populations for an additional 15 years, in order to prove the benefit of drainage designs on aquatic and terrestrial life and sensitive habitat.

Water quality monitoring will continue. The agricultural landowners have begun to implement additional erosion control measures on the fields adjacent to the Beaver Creek Municipal Drain, such as the planting of cover crops, construction of grassed waterways and sediment basins.

Through a partnership with the Bert Millar Nature Club and the Friends of Fort Erie Creeks, the Town of Fort Erie is creating an environmental education site at Beaver Creek. This site will be used to educate the public on natural channel designs, and the aquatic and terrestrial habitat in the Niagara Peninsula.

The Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs strives to stimulate the sustainable growth and competitiveness of Ontario's agri-food sector and rural communities, through investment in innovative and high quality research, in partnership with industry, rural communities, organizations and other levels of government and research institutions. OMAFRA supported this project through a research grant and technical guidance.

OMAFRA would like to acknowledge the collaboration and contributions made by the Beaver Creek Municipal Drain Project Steering Committee Partners: Town of Fort Erie, landowners in the Town of Fort Erie, Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority, University of Guelph, Niagara College, Urban Environmental Management Inc., LCA Environmental Consultants Inc., K Smart Associates Limited, Suda and Maleszyk Surveying Inc., Friends of Fort Erie Creeks, and the Bert Millar Nature Club.


For more information:
Toll Free: 1-877-424-1300
E-mail: ag.info.omafra@ontario.ca
Author: OMAFRA Staff
Creation Date: 18 December 2012
Last Reviewed: 18 December 2012