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Water conservation efforts in Bruce Peninsula taking shape

Farmers in the Bruce Peninsula region of Ontario’s Niagara Escarpment Biosphere Reserve are welcoming support from the Bruce Peninsula Biosphere Association (BPBA) for projects to improve water quality in freshwater streams and lakes that ultimately flow into Georgian Bay or Lake Huron.

The BPBA’s Six Streams Initiative focuses on three sources of pollution: cattle drinking in creeks, soil erosion and underperforming septic systems.

In two very busy years the association has already installed 47 off-stream solar-powered watering systems plus related projects such as fencing to keep cattle out of creeks, restore vegetation along stream banks and improve wetlands, says BPBA director John Rodgers, who farms in the Municipality of Northern Bruce and teaches high school science.

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cow drinking water from a trough

Rodgers hasn’t had cattle since 2012, but he was drawn to the Six Streams Initiative by the benefits he’s seen from centralized water systems installed around the district in recent years.

“The health improvement, no sore eyes, no sore feet and improvement in water quality are pretty beneficial,” he says.

Beef production on the peninsula was exclusively cow-calf and backgrounding operations right into the 1990s when the Wiarton Feeder Sale was the first big sale of the fall in Ontario and a bellwether for prices during the rest of the fall run. Cash cropping has increased in the past five to seven years, although the north end of the peninsula is still a relatively large cow-calf area and Bruce County is still one of the foremost beef-feeding areas in the province.

Neils Munk, BPBA’s Six Streams project manager, says the project’s land area is fairly small, but home to 15 larger beef farms that run about 5,000 head between them. Projects are located on five of the streams with the sixth serving as a control. Initial inspection and water quality sampling was carried out beforehand using $2,750 seed money from the Lake Huron-Georgian Bay Framework for Community Action. A $25,000 grant from the Great Lakes Guardian Community Fund for volunteer-based restoration projects helped get things rolling and provincial and federal environment departments have contributed more than $450,000 to date.

“Most of the project areas are remote, long-term pasture sites so the watering systems were designed to be permanent off-grid fixtures,” says Munk.

First, a stream-side well was constructed with a gravel-filled channel to draw water from the stream. A submersible pump in the well forces the water through a buried pipe into a heavy precast concrete trough set on drainage stone and surrounded with a layer of crushed stone for durability. The pump is powered by all-weather batteries charged by a solar panel with a charge-control system. A water-level sensor in the trough activates the pump when cattle drink.

Munk says the needs of each operation are taken into consideration and he works with the producers to improve the practical aspects of each layout.

The main adjustments so far have been the replacement of the square trough with a round one that has lower sides so it is easier for calves to reach the water, installing magnetic float switches that quickly activate the pump to keep up with the demands of the cattle, and armouring the electrical components to protect them from the cattle.

The cost is running around $6,500 for the trough, well tiles, pump, solar panel, batteries, all-weather containment, plus any excavation and installation. Extras might include erosion control earthworks, fencing, and seeding disturbed areas depending on the site.

BPBA pays for the components and installation and the farmers get involved in the planning, installation and any additional fencing as needed. Winterizing the systems was getting underway as cattle were coming off the pastures in mid-October.

A new project this summer involved the installation of drainage level control structures near the main outlets of tile drains in fields. These agri-drains are inline standpipes with flow barriers inside that the producer can raise or lower to control drainage from the field.

This gives them the flexibility to open it up for full drainage in spring so they can plant earlier in wet years and restrict drainage in the summer when moisture may be in short supply.

“Keeping more water in the field may improve growing conditions and provide water to local streams through dry periods,” Munk says.

Farmer co-operation with the water pro­jects has been great and response to the three agri-drains they’ve installed so far has been positive, says BPBA chair Elizabeth Thorn.

Part of the rationale supporting this work is the fact it helps retain more nutrients in fields and pastures where they’re needed rather than washing them into the streams where they can cause harm.

Nutrient reduction in streams ultimately leads to cleaner rivers and, “whatever happens to our rivers will happen in our Great Lakes,” says Thorn.

Linked to the Six Stream project is a science component that trains interested volunteers as certified water testers.

“We’ve just completed our third year of testing and are seeing some positive trends, like a drop in the phosphorus level. I’m told one year isn’t a trend because water flow is extremely variable from year to year, but still it is a positive result,” Thorn says.

This year they’ve added caffeine to the list of items they test for as a way to distinguish underperforming septic systems in cottage country from farm nutrients in their water samples.

For more details visit bpba.ca.

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