By Mike Anderson

Residents on Canal Street and Lake Drive S. in Keswick have petitioned council to stop agricultural runoff from a nearby commercial vegetable farm that’s causing the rapid growth of algae and duckweed in their canal.

The runoff enters the Canal St Canal through a culvert under Ravenshoe Rd., which is connected to the farm’s drainage ditch that runs parallel to the road for more than half a kilometre.

According to residents, the agricultural runoff, containing fertilizer and pesticides, is pumped from the fields into the ditch after heavy rainfalls.

The runoff, which includes nutrients like phosphorus, nitrogen and potassium, promotes the growth of algae and duckweed in the canal, reducing oxygen levels, killing fish, inhibiting water flow, and producing an unpleasant stench akin to a rotting swamp.

“Our backyards back onto the canal, which has been solid green for over six weeks and stagnated. Meanwhile, the Bruce St Canal is clear with flowing water,” the petition, addressed to Ward 1 Councillor Charlene Biggerstaff and Mayor Margaret Quirk, reads.

“The difference is obviously because our canal has a culvert running from East Gwillimbury farms. The Bruce St Canal has no culvert.”

“We have been unable to enjoy our water activities in our backyards because of this. Every year, the canal is getting worse.”

Duckweed and algae growth in Canal Street Canal

“We would like to see the culvert closed up,” said Ramona Visser, who drafted the petition and signed up nearly 40 of her neighbours.

Visser says she started lobbying council about four years ago, but nothing has been done to date.

“We really didn’t get very far. They said this is how it’s been since the 50s, and that’s how it’s staying.”

But Visser points out that in the 50s, the culvert allowed natural water from a creek to flow into the canal, but now, with a commercial farm across the road, it’s mainly agricultural runoff.

So far, according to Visser, the Town has yet to step up to the plate.

In an email to Visser, dated August 18, Alexandra Demoe, the Mayor’s executive assistant, said that while staff had met with LSRCA, the plant and algae growth is considered more of a nuisance than a risk to human health, and, accordingly, the Town will continue to schedule annual weed harvesting as part of its maintenance efforts.

However, Demoe said council members plan to meet with LSRCA and other regional agencies to “further identify what potential other avenues can be explored and will share back any key findings from those discussions.”

While an update is promised for mid-September, Visser is not confident that the Town will address the critical issue, the agricultural runoff.

“The weed harvesting gave only a temporary relief,” she said.

“We would like to see the culvert closed up. But I don’t think that will ever happen. Because they’re saying it has nothing to do with the culvert.”

Goodyear Farm pumping agricultural runoff into Ravenshoe Rd ditch
Drainage ditch flows towards culvert at Canal St. Canal.
Ravenshoe Rd culvert (bottom frame) allows runoff from ditch to flow into canal

The farm, located at 845 Ravenshoe Rd, in East Gwillimbury, is owned and operated by Goodyear Farm Ltd., whose head office is just down the road at 139 Ravenshoe Rd.

Goodyear Farms Ltd. is no stranger to controversy.

Its farm in Beaverton was the subject of an 11-year battle fought by local conservationists to stop its runoff from entering Lake Simcoe.

While it did eventually work with LSRCA to introduce mitigation measures, including sediment control basins, according to residents, no such measures have been introduced at the farm across the road.

“They’re pumping nutrient-rich water directly into the canal system,” said Gary Davies, who lives on Canal St. and was a candidate for Ward 1 Councillor in 2010.

“But the canal is just a conduit. It’s going straight into our lake; make a left, and you’re in Cook’s Bay.”

“There’s no settling ponds here. There’s nothing. When it’s a heavy rain, the colour of what they’re pumping up is chocolate milk,” Davies said.

He adds the farm could pump the runoff back towards the Holland River, where it can be filtered naturally before entering the lake. But he claims they don’t want to spend the money.

“They have an opportunity to pump it out the back way, but it costs them more to pump it that way because they have to use gas or diesel pumps. This way, they can use an inexpensive 12 or 15-horsepower electric motor to pump it towards the culvert and into the canal.”

Like his neighbours, Davies believes there needs to be more accountability, and the farm must change its practices.

“They’re not being environmentally friendly. There’s a better way that allows more filtering before it hits our lake,” he said.

“This is the major contributor to nutrient-rich water going directly into this lake. Period.”

Zubin Abidi, who moved his family to Keswick from Toronto nearly three years ago, also wants more accountability.

He says he’d like to teach his kids to cast off his dock, but that’s impossible with algae blooms and duckweed.

“Sometimes, I can’t tell the difference between where my lawn and where the canal begins because it’s the exact same colour. I’ve actually seen a maple tree growing in the middle of the canal.”

Abidi, a chemist for a pharmaceutical company, would like to see the water tested by the LSRCA or MECP, and if it exceeds provincial standards, remedial action taken.

“I understand it’s expensive to operate the farms, but there are rules and regulations that should be implemented to prevent things like this from happening,” he said.