Water concerns highlighted by Caledon community opposed to doubling of Belfountain’s population
While governments and organizations draw attention to the growing density of pollutants in the Great Lakes, two small towns are concerned about growth-related impacts on their own freshwater ecosystems which could have serious consequences for much larger GTA cities downstream.
Caledon and Erin are dealing with three different development proposals, which have prompted community members to take action to protect their local water sources along the headwaters that feed much of the western GTA’s critical watersheds.
Erin residents are concerned about the impact of a new wastewater treatment facility and the native Brook Trout habitat in the West Credit River where the effluent from the sewage treatment plant could damage the cold water ecosystem.
More recently, residents of two adjacent hamlets in the Town of Caledon have been fighting development proposals for a mega blasting quarry in Cataract that would extract below the water table, and 75 large new homes planned for construction in the hamlet of Belfountain.
The three development proposals (two in west Caledon and one in Erin) are all within a 15-kilometre radius and will significantly impact the local water supply; there is no work being done to study the cumulative impacts on critical watercourses that much of the GTA depend on.
“In Ontario, each development is typically reviewed to ensure that off-site impacts will not occur and, as such, if there are no off-site impacts associated with individual sites, there should be no cumulative impacts,” a hydrogeological investigation report, done by COLE Engineering Group Ltd. for the Belfountain development group, concludes.
The proposed Manors of Belfountain subdivision development.
(Town of Caledon)
“Everything's so interconnected. So we can't just look at an area in its single zone, because it's all connected,” Edi Cadham, a resident of Belfountain told The Pointer. She has particular concerns about the downstream effects of the Erin wastewater treatment plant adding to the impacts of the Manors of Belfountain (MOB) development.
In February 2018, a hydrological investigation for the development plan was submitted to the Town of Caledon and was also forwarded to the Region of Peel, Credit Valley Conservation Authority (CVC), Niagara Escarpment Commission (NEC) and Belfountain Community Organization (BCO) for comment. The Town also retained Terra Dynamics Consulting to conduct an independent review of the report. A final report was submitted to the Town in 2021, taking into consideration the previous work.
The BCO found numerous issues after studying the COLE report, and hired its own hydrogeologist to conduct an independent hydrogeological investigation which concluded the property would be better suited for 38 dwellings, just over half of the proposed 75.
“I find that the community [of Belfountain] is very concerned about the environment. And just because we're so connected with nature, we really care a lot about protecting it,” Cadham said. Living in the hamlet her entire life — except for her four years away at university where she earned a degree in environmental studies — she said growth-related decisions and the way of life has been very nature focussed for many local residents, even the elementary school is classified as an eco-school.
Belfountain residents gathered last month to raise concerns about the Manors of Belfountain development proposal.
(Alexis Wright/The Pointer)
After the developer received a permit from the NEC in July, the BCO met with the Town of Caledon to file an appeal to the Niagara Escarpment Commission, using evidence from its own study suggesting a maximum of 38 households should be the threshold to protect the local water system. Caledon Mayor Annette Groves also shared with the community that the Town will be filing a protective appeal this month.
One concern is the quantity of water that will be drawn from the water table and how that will impact existing private wells. The entire community of Belfountain, with less than 100 homes, uses private wells. Cadham said that even prior to any development, there is already inconsistency with water availability.
“Our water level has gone low before. Low and there's been low water flow. And I know that people in the community have spoken of similar issues,” she told The Pointer. “So it's already an issue. And if there are more homes draining from the same water table, it's going to just be exacerbated.”
A groundwater consultant for the BCO, Ken Howard, responded to the 2018 hydrogeological assessment with 26 concerns, the first was the lack of evidence to suggest the landscape and water table could support the demand from 75 new homes. The comments were responded to by engineering firm IBI group, representing the MOB development group.
IBI asserts the hydrogeological investigation was completed in accordance with Environment Ministry guidelines that a minimum of five six-hour pumping tests be completed for 40 hectares and an additional test for every additional 20 hectares. They also stated the company undertook three 26-hour pumping tests, two 24-hour pumping tests and one 42-hour pumping test.
Howard, a professor of hydrogeology at the University of Toronto with more than 30 years of experience in the public and private sector, including as an executive with the International Association of Hydrogeologists, raised numerous questions after reviewing the work done for the developer. There are no reliable values of aquifer storage presented and the minimum test requirements do not do a good job at visualizing what the total water quality extracted would be, he concluded.
“I find it inconceivable that COLE proposes to proceed with a major groundwater resource development project involving 75 pumping wells without an appropriately conceived and fully calibrated groundwater flow model that will enable the long-term behaviour of the aquifer to be predicted under pumping conditions,” Howard wrote in his comments.
He predicts that for each household, on a one-acre lot, will use an average of 2,250 litres per household per day for a daily total of 168,750 litres with all 75 lots combined.
The BCO and IBI disagree on the amount of water this will subtract from the underlying aquifer. Howard predicts the 75 lots will take up about 40 percent of groundwater flow. IBI suggests this number could be as low as seven percent.
The developers also assure there will be a significant volume of recharge entering the aquifer which will contribute to a stable flow. But as has been seen in other major developments in Brampton and other suburban areas, a loss of impervious surfaces leads to less water infiltrating the ground which can lead to lack of water availability in the local table.
“That's just another whole issue. That hasn't really felt like the developers are focusing on that,” Cadham said.
Half of the BCO’s arguments were not about the amount of water available, but rather the water quality.
Levels of nitrates on the property are within Ontario Drinking Water Standards (ODWS) limits, however they reached as high as 9.08 milligrams per litre which is within 10 percent of the regulated limit of 10 milligrams per litre. The impacts of high nitrate concentrations are most likely to affect youth and pose a risk of methemoglobinemia, also known as blue baby syndrome which occurs when there is not enough oxygen in the blood and can result from excess nitrate consumption. The effects on adults are less severe but can cause nausea, increased heart rate, headaches and cramps.
The developer has decided on a setback distance of a minimum of seven metres from the line of high nitrate concentration — which exists in the northern area of the subdivision — a distance the developer refers to as “conservative”. The BCO says this is insufficient as it was calculated using an average pumping rate and could draw nitrates from farther away at peak periods. Using a more appropriate peak pumping rate, the BCO provides a safer estimate of a required setback distance of 83 metres. And as the hydraulic gradient decreases due to ongoing water being pumped, the concentration of nitrates will increase, pushing the needed setback distance to approximately 140 metres. This would eliminate some of the northern lots on the property.
While the Credit Valley Conservation authority has reviewed the reports, it has not expressed any concerns over nitrates.
The BCO also addressed the developer’s claim that converting the land from agricultural use will reduce fertilizer contamination. While agriculture operations are one of the greatest sources of nitrate pollution in waterways, the study by the developer did not account for fertilizer use at the residential level.
Howard concludes that if 50 percent of nitrogen from personal fertilizers is uptaken by vegetation, each lot would add around 10 milligrams of nitrogen per litre of water infiltrating the site, far more than the safe limit for protecting the local ecosystem.
In addition to the concerns related to nitrates, sulphates in the water can impact health. The ODWS recommends health authorities be notified when concentrations are above 1000 milligrams per litre because at that level some physiological effects can occur for adults, akin to the effect of a laxative. Impacts on infants and young children can happen at lower concentrations. The COLE report shows sulphate levels approach 1000 milligrams at one of their test sites.
The BCO is concerned that the root cause of the sulphate problem has not been identified nor are there any proposed solutions. If a setback were to be included from the problem area, it would eliminate many of the lots on the south end of the property. Mixed with the setbacks in the north for nitrate concentrations, this would contribute to the BCO’s estimate that 38 dwellings would be much more sustainable and suitable for the property.
Cadham’s biggest concern is that the developer does not seem to have an interest in the small-town way of life. Joining the BCO over a decade ago, she has shared her concerns with her neighbours and has even heard from visitors who want to protect the hamlet.
Cadham said she is not against growth, but like many young people and experts in the urban planning field, she is a fierce advocate for smart growth that incorporates density, utilizes existing infrastructure and limits the impacts on natural ecosystems while protecting as much vital greenspace as possible.
What she sees unfolding does not meet any of these critical considerations for growth.
“Urban sprawl is not the correct answer.”
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