'Active management' required for Humber River: environmental advocates

January 17th, 2019

The Humber River marks its 20th anniversary as an official heritage waterway this year. Advocates say river management over the next 20 years will prove pivotal not just for Toronto but all of southern Ontario.

Man-made impacts on the Humber have only escalated in the last couple of decades, as they have on all major waterways, from increased pollution and litter to drastic changes to the river’s salinity, threatening the local ecosystem. An audience of concerned community members gathered last week in York to talk about those impacts and what people can do to improve the Humber's health.

“We have to understand we’re going through dramatic changes,” said Parkdale—High Park Councillor Gord Perks, one of six Toronto city councillors whose ward is located within the immediate vicinity of the Humber.

A former environmental sciences professor, Perks was at Lambton House last week to deliver a lecture on the Humber’s future, one he warned that will require constant vigilance as the effects of climate change worsen.

The Humber Watershed, which covers 911 square kilometres including the 126 kilometre river, faces important challenges according to a recent report card issued by the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority.

While the 2018 evaluation rated river wells excellent for groundwater quality, it found worrying levels of E. coli bacteria and phosphorus in samples of surface water. The report also found increased chloride levels caused by salt runoffs.

Heather Marshall from the city environmental watchdog the Toronto Environmental Alliance (TEA) said salt levels in the Humber have caused a ‘pickling’ of the river, resulting in invasive species like lamprey eels flourishing at the expense of native fresh water species.

Marshall called on the city, which dumps around 160,000 tonnes of salt on city roadways and sidewalks every winter to adopt management plans, co-ordinating with municipalities situated along the Humber.

“Everything which happens upstream affects us,” said Marshall who also spoke at the Jan. 10 event.

One major change in thinking needed, said Perks, is shifting the focus from conservation or restoration of a once-pristine landscape to the realization that the Humber, like every place on Earth, has been profoundly and forever changed by human activity.

Inspiration for a new form of stewardship can be found from the Haudenosaunee, said Perks, who engaged in “active agriculture” on the Humber dating back some two thousand years.

A similar constant vigilance is required from today’s modern inhabitants, he said.

“We have to think about managing the Humber as we do our homes,” said Perks. We have to take a portion of our daily lives now used for hobbies or other pursuits to actively participate in the future of the Humber River.”

Marshall called for more pressure on Toronto elected officials to enact punitive measures like stormwater charges which would impose a fee on high-level water users, such as parking lot operators, to use for building better flood protection infrastructure.

Municipalities like Mississauga have adopted similar measures, but Toronto so far has opted not to impose a similar charge.

“We need to pressure decision-makers to do more and put the onus on government and not the community,” said Marshall.

University of Toronto graduate student Kate Campbell created an information exhibit titled "What’s Up with the Humber?" to coincide with the river's 20th anniversary since it was federally designated as a heritage river.

On display at Lambton House, the exhibit chronicles the changes to the Humber over the last 11,000 years, which have only been exacerbated since 1999.

Increased levels of litter can be easily spotted floating through the Humber or lying shore side — items like single-use plastic takeout containers which the city cannot recycle. On one riverside cleanup over the summer, Campbell said she filled an entire garbage bag of disposed plastics in just 15 minutes.

Campbell said she understands the weariness and even feelings of helplessness experienced in reaction to dire environmental news and the inaction of elected representatives to make meaningful change.

“But even small changes will make a difference if we all do them,” said Campbell. “In the end, I want people to leave the exhibit thinking there are things you can do, and they will make a difference.”