COCONUTS, AND THE RESTORATION OF A SOUTHERN ONTARIO CREEK
Panicked landowners often call our office for help after being caught working illegally without permits in environmentally regulated areas. This is the story of one particularly appalling violation incident involving the complete destruction of a significant creek habitat. It is a cautionary tale and in the end, a restoration success story.
Wide-eyed and ashen faced, his first words were "I am in big trouble". As I walked the property with the landowner and saw the scope of the damage, I could see why. Before me lay the remains of a once verdant, lushly vegetated coldwater creek laid to waste by one of the most heartbreaking and irresponsible acts of habitat destruction I'd ever seen. In his words, he'd only intended to "improve" the property. Caught red-handed in the act by the Toronto Region Conservation Authority (TRCA), he was staring at a notice of major violation, with steep fines and possibly even jail time on the horizon.
Over the next 18 months, Genus Loci, in collaboration with Natural Resource Solutions Inc (NRSI) oversaw the planning, design and implementation of an ambitious creek restoration strategy. The story begins with all too familiar scenes of ecological destruction, but ends with hope. It demonstrates the possibilities of ecological restoration as a tool to repair damaged ecosystems, and how, in this case, a bit of creative ingenuity and yes, coconuts, can underpin the successful restoration of a riparian habitat.
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King Township is a bucolic rural community of small towns, villages, farms located 30 km north of Toronto, Ontario. Located on the Oak Ridges Moraine, a provincially significant and protected greenbelt, the Township is characterized by long views across a rolling rural tapestry of natural and cultural landscapes woven together by a dense network of wetlands, streams and rivers.
The subject property is a prime 100 acre tract of land, a microcosm of the Township landscape combining active farmland, successional old fields, hedgerows, woodlots and mature woodlands. A creek meanders through the property, to the heart of the story.
To the landowner's eyes, this stream was a hazardous eyesore, a wild and non-descript ditch overgrown with a messy thicket of tangled trees and shrubs. Eager to "improve" his property, he retained a local landscape contractor to tame and "lawnscape" 5 acres of scrubland, including a 300m stretch of creek. The densely vegetated stream banks were brutally grubbed and stripped bare, machine-graded to 3:1 slopes, covered in filter cloth and finally smothered in a thick 8 inch blanket of imported river stone.
As work was wrapping up, a TRCA enforcement officer driving by the property spied the construction activity and stopped to make enquiries. Within minutes, a stop work order was issued, and thus began the landowner's nightmare.
The creek, as it turns out, is located within the TRCA's regulated regional floodline, and therefore subject to strict environmental controls, including restrictions on grading and filling. Upon further investigation, it was determined that the creek is actually a “cold-water” tributary of the Humber River, and was listed as a potential habitat of the Redside Dace, a endangered fish species. To the untrained eye, this creek may not have been much to look at, but it was of great ecological importance. The shade and shelter offered by the wild mantle of trees, shrubs, forbs and grasses overhanging the creek are integral to Redside Dace habitat.
Offences included working near water without a permit, failure to implement sediment controls, and filling within a regional floodplain. These offences paled in comparison to violations under both the Federal Fisheries Act and the Ontario Endangered Species Act. The habitat damage was considered “massive”, and under the ESA, first-time violators are subject to fines of up to $1,000,000 and/or one year imprisonment.
The landowner's only recourse was to voluntarily bear the costs of a complex multi-year riparian habitat remediation and restoration project, to return the creek to its original state.
In collaboration with NRSI, Genus Loci oversaw the planning, design and installation of a restoration strategy tailored to the site, in accordance with strict requirements and conditions laid out by the TRCA.
NRSI conducted a thorough baseline assessment of undisturbed creek on and off the property, to quantify water flows, bank stability, natural erosion rates, and native species. This information was used to define the structure and composition of Red Dace habitat, and by extension, a restoration goal and methodology .
From the outset, it was understood that the river stone and filtercloth blanket was a direct barrier to any future plant growth, and had to go. Its removal would leave the barren creek banks vulnerable to erosion, particularly during high flow periods. To successfully re-establish the creek flora, a bioengineered - and cost effective - restoration solution was needed. Soils would have to be mechanically stabilized for the short term bank stability, until plantings matured and rooted for long-term reinforcement.
This is where the coconuts - or more specifically, coconut fibre- comes into play. The entire shoreline and creek embankment was lined coconut fibre-filled coir logs, mechanically anchored into the soil. Coir logs are typically used to reinforce shorelines; here, they were used as a structural support framework for the entire creek bank. The entire assembly was then planted with a broad array of native, site-appropriate native tree and shrub seedlings, reinforced with hundreds of live willow cuttings. Finally, the embankments were terraseeded by blower truck with native grass and forb seed mix. The coir logs biodegrade very slowly, and will stabilize and structurally reinforce the creek banks for up to 7 years. By then, the introduced vegetation will be fully established and rooted to permanently secure the creek embankments.
The installation was completed over a 6 week period in the fall of 2012. Here are some of the key project statistics:
250 tons of riverstone removed and relocated outside the regulated flood zone;
15,000 sf of geotextile fabric removed and disposed;
800 coir logs installed, along with an additional 10,000 sf of coir cloth to stabilize seeded areas above the top of bank. Coir product supplied by Terrafix Geosynthetics;
200 cubic meters of terraseed (compost mixed with a native grass and forb seed mix) sprayed over the entire installation by Landsource Organics;
2000 native container grown tree seedlings and shrubs planted, along with 50 mature native trees and 300 container grown native grasses and forbes;
1500 live willow stakes installed.
The project was given final review and approval by the TRCA in 2015 and deemed a complete success, lauded for its wildly dense and vibrant native vegetation cover in only three short years. Still, this installation was merely a seed, a starting point from which nature can do its thing. Over time, as natural process takes over, the site will evolve, diversify and ultimately mature into a stable and resilient plant community that sustains Red Dace, and which is fully integrated into the Moraine's ecological tapestry of waterways, green corridors and natural areas.