By Mike Anderson

A group of concerned residents, who call themselves Friends of the Maskinonge River, are urging local politicians and the Lake Simcoe Region Conservation Authority (LSRCA) to do more to clean-up the Maskinonge River.

The group, which formed in 2020 and whose members live mainly on Riveredge Dr. and Riverglen Dr. in Keswick, say the river in front of their properties is stagnant, full of muck, and often covered in a carpet of algae and floating duckweed.

They say the water quality is so bad that fish can’t survive, and, with garbage and debris accumulating around docks, it is no longer safe to swim.

“Nobody swims ever. You never see anybody in the river. It’s mucky, and it’s filled with algae,” said Brenda Eng, who co-founded the group with her friend Christine Legree.

“The river is just not moving. There’s no flow. And, most of the time, the water level is very low.”

Eng blames sod farms and commercial farms east of Woodbine Ave. for most of the river’s problems.

She points to a recent report produced by Patrick Meyer, a former marine ecologist, who argues sod farms, in particular, are taking too much water from the river to irrigate their fields.

Meyer says the Maskinonge River, the oldest on Lake Simcoe, has become little more than “a tributary for road waste and farm slur to enter the Simcoe Basin.”

According to Meyer, the northern tributaries of the Maskinonge have been blocked and dammed by farmers to create ponds, which are used for livestock watering.

He also claims sod farms are over pumping, drying up the Maskinonge’s eastern tributaries, significantly restricting the river’s flow, and preventing it from discharging naturally into Lake Simcoe.

“The distressing part is the river is moving actively upstream. And this means the water is being displaced by lake water. We need it to go in the opposite direction to keep the flow healthy,” Meyer said.

“The river has become an industrial inlet. It’s just serving the sod farming industry. And that’s shocking.”

Irrigation pump on the Maskinonge River

According to the Ministry of the Environment (MECP), there are currently three active permits to take water from the Maskinonge River.

Brouwers Sod Farms Ltd has two permits – one for 8,728,320 L/day, the other for 3,486,720 L/day – which allow it to pump water from the river 150 days each year.

Don Chapman Farms Ltd, a large-scale vegetable farming operation, has a single permit that allows it to pump 2,907,000 L/day for up to 110 days a year.

In total, these two farms can legally pump more than 15 million litres of water from the river per day – the equivalent of six Olympic-sized swimming pools.

Meyer says that LSRCA has estimated the total volume of water in the river – from Woodbine Ave to the mouth – to be 80 million litres. So nearly 20 per cent of that water could be used for irrigation per day.

“That is a big shocker,” he said. “Potentially, every five days or so, you’re losing a big part of the river through siphoning. That’s a lot of water.”

Meyer also questions whether the Ministry is doing an adequate job of policing the water permits.

According to the MECP website, monitoring is largely based on an honour system, with permit holders required to record the amount of water they take each day, and submit those records once per year.

The Post asked MECP if inspectors visit the pumping locations along the Maskinonge River, but as of publishing no response was forthcoming.

Eng would also like to see more accountability around water taking.

“There are people taking water out of the river that are using it for farms,” Eng said.

“The farmers need to know that it’s not like a money pit that you can just draw from and not care.”

Friends of the Maskinonge River is also concerned that agricultural run-off from farms east of Woodbine Ave., which LSRCA confirms is occuring, may be contaminating the river with phosphorus, pesticides, and herbicides.

Eng recently asked the Town’s Waterways Advisory Committee to test the water along the river, but there has been no commitment to do so.

According to the Town, water testing is only done in beach areas and only by public health.

LSRCA is the only agency that tests water in the Maskinonge River, primarily for phosphorus, nitrates and chloride (salt), but not for pesticides, herbicides or E. Coli.

Still, according to LSRCA, from 2008 to 2019, 91 per cent of water samples from the river exceeded the provincial water quality guideline for phosphorus.

And, since 2014, when the highway 404 extension opened, 84 per cent of the samples also exceeded chronic guidelines for chloride (salt).

Still, from 2008 to 2019, 99.7 per cent of water samples had nitrate levels below the guideline.

The low nitrate levels may be attributable to LSRCA’s only water monitoring station being located nearly 4 km south-east of Woodbine Ave., on a tributary that’s upstream from most of the sod farms.

The Post asked Brouwer Sod Farms to comment on the claims made by Friends of the Maskinonge River.

According to Gerry Brouwer, his sod farm has not pumped any water from the Maskinonge River so far this year.

“On the Maskinonge, we didn’t use the water at all this year,” he said

Brouwer also argues water pumping does not affect the river’s water level or flow.

“I don’t believe that because the river is at lake level. So to drop it by an inch, it would take millions of gallons,” he said.

He also denied there is any agricultural run-off from his property.

“There is never run-off from our field because it’s a level field,” he said.

“There’s a big buffer, at least a couple of hundred feet, between the river and where we actually grow sod. So there is no possibility of anything from our fields going into the river.”

While the LSRCA continues to complete restoration projects on the Maskinonge River subwatershed, the pace of that work has slowed considerably.

In 2009, LSRCA launched the Maskinonge River Recovery Project (MRRP), a community-led initiative that completed 112 restoration projects.

But the project ended in 2017, after federal funding through the Lake Simcoe Clean-Up Fund – cancelled by the Liberal government – dried up.

The MRRP volunteer committee, which played a key role in the project, was also disbanded.

Since 2018, LSRCA has completed just six river restoration projects, with another 2 in progress.

LSRCA’s Maskinonge River Subwatershed Plan, published in 2010, is also out of date, and its most recent water testing data is two years old.

Still, LSRCA continues to offer restoration grants to landowners along the Maskinonge River, and provides a free of charge site consultation (restoration@lsrca.on.ca).

On June 2, Friends of the Maskinonge River met with LSRCA, via Zoom, to discuss their concerns. But, according to Eng, the meeting did not go well.

“We suggested several things to LSRCA, and they downplayed everything we suggested,” she said.

“Everybody keeps saying, it’s not my problem. It’s not our area. We don’t take care of it. We don’t govern it. Well, who does?”

While she acknowledges that saving the river isn’t going to be easy, Eng is hopeful that the Town, LSRCA and various levels of government will respond to the group’s concerns.

“As long as we’re fighting for the river, it will happen because we’re not going to stop. We’ve got a lot more people that we started with, and more people will come on board,” she said.

There are signs the group’s lobbying efforts may be working.

Mayor Margaret Quirk recently promised to submit a budget request to install a floating boom near the Woodbine Ave. bridge, which she hopes will be done in partnership with LSRCA.

The boom should stop the flow of algae, floating duckweed, garbage and other debris, improving the aesthetics of the western section of the river, which flows through Keswick.

But, there is no guarantee that council will approve the funding.

Eng has invited the Mayor and council to take a boat ride with her along the river to see the issues first hand.

“We want them to notice how poor the condition of the river is and to do something about it,” she said.

“We do pay extra taxes to live along the river. And nobody’s getting any happiness out of being on the water here. It’s pretty sad.”

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