The Ins and Outs of Lake Ontario

Note: This post was first published on June 1, 2019 with data available from May 30, 2019. It was updated on June 3, 2019 with the latest data available, and improved graphs. It was updated again on June 5 and July 2, 2019 to reflect new height records.

In June 2017, Lake Ontario rose to a height not seen in the last 100 years of recorded history. The pictures of how this impacted Toronto were dramatic; flooding parks, eroding shorelines, and boardwalks, beaches and the Islands underwater.

Two years later, we broke records again. Once again, it’s a shocking scene.

The height of water in a lake fluctuates naturally. The amount of rainfall flowing into it, and the rate at which it drains through an outlet (if it has one) is a major determinant. However, it can also be affected by temperature, sunlight, formation / melting of snow and ice, and wind.

But how have we hit crazy high levels within the last two years? Rain, and how much and how hard it falls, is definitely a huge factor. But you may be surprised to learn that its less about the rain that falls onto Lake Ontario’s surface and shores or how hard it fell, and more about what’s happening to the east and the west.

This is a look at where water in Lake Ontario comes from, and where it goes.

The Setup

Lake Ontario basin. From a Report for the International Joint Commission.

First, let’s set this up with some historical context on Lake Ontario’s water level (Note 1).

Prior to 2017, Lake Ontario had only gone above a height of 75.7 metres twice in the last century: 1952 and 1973. It has also only gone below 73.8 metres twice during the same period: 1934 and 1936. Otherwise, Lake Ontario has varied in height within this 1.9 metre range from year-to-year, and season-to-season.

Then in 2017, the previous record set in 1952 was broken by 5 centimetres, with the lake reaching a monthly average height of 75.81 metres above sea level. It was dramatic and visually striking, flooding the Toronto Islands and other shoreline areas on the mainland. The capital repair costs to the city were estimated to total $15.6 million.

This year, the high lake levels are repeating themselves. Most days in June 2019 broke Lake Ontario’s previous daily height record of 75.88 m set in 2017. June 2019 also saw a new record average lake height of 75.89 m, or 8 cm above the previous record set in June 2017.

Looking back makes you realize that in Lake Ontario’s history, a couple pairs of high level years occurring in close vicinity is not unprecedented. 1929 + 1930. ’43 +’ 47 + ’52. ’73 + ’74 +’76. Keep the last two sets in mind next time you’re looking at imprints on Toronto’s bridges and culverts. Same story goes for sets of years with record lows.

Graph of annual minimum, average and maximum levels in lake Ontario, 1918 to present.

What causes the changes in Lake Ontario to swing so much? Do I really need to bust out that graphic from your high school science class showing the water cycle? No? Good.

But as I alluded to, Lake Ontario’s water level isn’t affected as much by the rain that falls near the lake. Below is a chart showing the water balances for the Great Lakes.

As you can see, Lake Ontario’s levels are highly dependent on upstream inflow and downstream outflow (79% and 95% of total inflows and outflows, respectively). The remaining 21% of the total inflow is from water fed from rivers and streams, and 5% of the total water is evaporated (Note 2).

Upstream inflows come from the other Great Lakes, which are fed by rainfall and streamflow. So technically, it makes it an indirect impact. But it’s an important distinction to make. A closer look at where Lake Ontario’s water comes from and where it goes will make it clear why.

Ontario: Last Stop Before the St Lawrence

Lake Ontario is impacted by the fact that it is part of Great Lakes-St Lawrence River system. This means it is fed by water from (going upstream):

  • Lake Erie via the Niagara River;
  • Lake St Clair, via the Detroit River;
  • Lake Huron / Georgian Bay, via the St Clair River;
  • Lake Michigan, via the Straits of Mackinac; and,
  • Lake Superior, via the St Mary’s River.

Water from Lake Erie flows down the Niagara River, and its mostly unregulated, meaning it flows without anything really holding it back (i.e. a dam). Two exceptions are hydroelectric power plants on both the Canadian and American sides, as well as the Welland Canal. However, the power plants are restricted in how much water they take in; the International Join Commission (IJC) is a bi-national agency that has rules to ensure there is enough water flowing over Niagara Falls, so they look pretty and aren’t a pathetic dribble.

Courtesy Ontario Power Generation

Furthermore, they don’t have much capacity to hold what flows down the Niagara River, and they have to let it go eventually. It only manages to change the flow +/- 5%.

The Welland Canal is another pathway for water between Lakes Erie and Ontario. It isn’t a huge factor either; it’s 8.5% of what flows through the Niagara River (Note 3).

Continuing upstream, Lake Huron and Lake Michigan are technically one lake, as they are hydraulically connected through the Straits of Mackinac and generally sit at the same level. The water from them flows unregulated through the Lake St Clair and the St Clair and Detroit Rivers.

Lake Superior is the one major upstream part of the basin that is regulated. Outflow is controlled via three power plants and a 16-gate dam on the St Mary’s River. However, the outflow of Superior pales in comparison to other inputs to Lakes Michigan, Huron and Erie, and even then, any water held back would be a percentage of that outflow.

All that to say Lake Ontario is fed by the other lakes and the rainfall that feeds into them, and there’s really nothing holding it back. So when all of the lakes are up, it can mean a significant cumulative height difference for Lake Ontario.

Outflow: A Balancing Act

Lake Ontario, and all of the water fed into it, flows into the St Lawrence River, and eventually the Atlantic Ocean. But it’s not as simple as draining a tub.

While the eastern end of Lake Ontario is defined as being at Kingston (where it passes both sides of Wolfe Island), there are locks and dams along the way, which widen the St Lawrence River behind them and form ‘lakes.’ These lakes are:

  • Lake St Lawrence, between Kingston and Cornwall
  • Lake St Francis, between Cornwall and Melocheville
  • Lake St Louis, along the west end of Montreal Island.

The key outlet is at Cornwall, between Lake St Lawrence and Lake St Francis, where the Moses-Saunders Dam controls the flow of water. How much water is released is once again determined by the IJC, but unlike the Niagara River, that goal is not making pretty waterfalls. Nor is it just contingent on what is happening to the west. The IJC has to play a balancing act between the height of Lake Ontario and how high the St Lawrence is downstream.

Courtesy ceedub13

Lake Ontario is 19,000 km² and an average depth of 86 m. Lake St Francis and Lake St Louis on the other hand are…not so big. I couldn’t find the figures I was looking for, but it’s in the ballpark of 400 km² and an average depth of 10-20 m (if you got better numbers give me a shout). But the magnitude speaks for itself; the same amount of water has a disproportionate impact on water levels.

Even if Lake Ontario is really high, increasing outflow to reduce its height by a couple centimetres could send downstream communities underwater. So even if the Toronto Islands are underwater and our shorelines are being eaten away by erosion, it’s a small cost relative to the damage that could occur down in Quebec.

Courtesy of the International Joint Commission

Another complicating factor is that the Ottawa River meets the St Lawrence at Lake St Louis. It is a very large river basin which is also relatively unregulated, and it can significantly alter the height of the St Lawrence at Lake St Louis. If there are already high flows coming down the Ottawa River, this put extra restrictions on the flow out of the Moses-Saunders Dam so that flooding in Montreal and other Quebec communities downstream doesn’t occur or isn’t worsened.

Seasonal Impacts

One mitigating factor in all of this is the evaporation off of the lakes. One would think that warm temperatures mean big thunderstorms, and that is a pathway for moisture to be carried out of the lake. Well, it actually it’s quite low.

Courtesy of the Great Lakes Commission

Just as snow melt starts entering the system and the rain begins to fall, evaporation rates nosedive, and whatever goes through a lake’s outflow is the only output of the system. When you put the plug in the tub while the water’s still pouring in, it’s gonna fill up.

The manner in which snow falls and melts can also have an impact on the system. I reached out to a friend who is more academically trained in earth and atmospheric sciences to expand on these effects of seasonal change on lake levels.

“A late start to spring and extended cold weather can delay local vegetation’s break from dormancy. This has the effect of reducing evapotranspiration rates early in the season. As plants take up water, they remove some moisture from the ground which would otherwise end up in local river systems, and eventually through to the St. Lawerence River. 

An extended winter may also delay snow melt timing, resulting in a greater surge of water into the Great Lakes, as opposed to the longer, drawn-out thaw that we are typically used to.

Downstream damming and excessive rainfall are much more significant contributors to lake level issues. Still, evapotranspiration and snow melt play an important part in our water cycle, and all of these factors together may have helped pushed things over the top this year.”

Alex Harris, B.Sc.(Env.), M.Sc. – Ecology candidate

The Perfect Storm

Putting it all together, you get an idea of why 2017 and this year saw crazy high water levels in Lake Ontario.

  • Extended winter and late spring
  • Significant spring rain
  • Significant unregulated flow into Lake Ontario from Lake Erie
  • Significant unregulated flow into the St Lawrence from the Ottawa River
  • Restricted outflow from Lake Ontario

And when you put this in chart form, with the lake level put against the rates of inflow and outflow, it becomes clear how restrictions at the Moses-Saunders Dam can play a large part in raising Lake Ontario’s height.

Between April 18 and May 21, 2019, there was an average of 114.85 million m³ more water flowing into Lake Ontario than flowing out each day. Over 34 days, that makes for a total of 3.9 billion m³ of water. If you didn’t account for elevation, that would be enough to cover the city of Toronto in 6.2 metres of water (Note 4). Accounting for elevation however, that’s enough water to flood downtown Toronto, East York and south Etobicoke (up to the old Iroquois shoreline) with as much as 50 metres of water (Note 5).

The area below the “Iroquois shoreline” (Note 5).

So, a lot of water. Spread out over the entirety of Lake Ontario however, it rose 70 cm, which is enough to impact the entirety of Toronto’s 111 km of shoreline, and thousands more kilometres of shoreline across the rest of the lake (Note 6).

So what are the odds of this happening again? I can’t tell you exactly. I have delivered simplified numbers here, and don’t have a good enough understanding of inter-year and inter-seasonal effects on basin supply and drain.

But based on my knowledge of climate change phenomena, I think the chances are good. Climate change is forecasted to increased precipitation for the Great Lakes Basin, and this may have an impact, particularly if increasingly severe storms means more rainfall runs off into local watercourses instead of being absorbed by the ground and transpired by plants. Furthermore, there is increasing evidence to suggest climate change may increase the frequency and severity of polar vortexes, which could extend winters and delay spring vegetation growth.

So perhaps it’s time to talk about how we manage the inflows and outflows of the Great Lakes. Should we be taking steps to regulate flows out of Lakes Michigan, Huron and Erie? Should we begin to deregulate flows out of Lake Ontario and find another way to mitigate flooding in the St Lawrence?

That discussion would be a geographical (upstream and downstream) and impact-based (net natural, social and economic) balancing act. And that’s way beyond a single blog post or a single year of records.

Notes

1. Lake height measurements are from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s master gauges (Superior – Marquette C.G., Michigan – 9099018 | Michigan-Huron – Harbor Beach, MI – 9075014 | Erie – Fairport, OH – 9063053 | Ontario – Oswego, NY – 9052030) and are based on the International Great Lakes Datum, 1985. Monthly/annual maximums, averages and minimums available here.

2. Neff and Nicholas (2005). Uncertainty in the Great Lakes Water Balance: U.S. Geological Survey Scientific Investigations Report 2004-5100, Table 6. Data is from 2003, and a contact at the University of Michigan indicated that it is out of date. A more up-to-date water balance model is available, but I did not have enough time to crunch the data. That said, these figures should provide a good sense of magnitude of importance.

3. Flow rates on the Niagara River and Welland Canal are obtained from Hydrometric Data provided by Environment Canada’s Water Office.

4. Not accounting for elevation, Toronto has an area of 630.2 km² (per StatsCan); taking the volume (of water in lake Ontario) and dividing it by area (of Toronto) equals height (3.9 million km³ / 630.2 km² = 6.2 m).

5. I obtained a simplified line drawing of the shore from BlogTO, eliminated the segment east of Scarborough Heights Park, and converted into a polygon (area is 152 km²). I then employed simplified math to illustrate how much water there is; assuming that this area was a triangular prism, with a height equal to point where the slope starts a significant elevation increases (~130 m above sea level, near Yonge Street and Woodlawn Ave; difference from the lowest point in Toronto of 76.5 metres of 53.5 metres from the shore). The volume of this perfect triangular prism is therefore area * height divided by 2 (152 km² * 53.5 m = 4,066 km³). To reverse-calculate how high the water would be for a different volume of water (e.g. the net flow into Lake Ontario; 3.9 million km³), you can multiply the volume by 2, and divide by the area ([3.9 million km³ * 2] / 152 km² = 51.4 m).

6. Toronto’s shoreline length is calculated based on my previous #shorelineTO work. Lake Ontario’s shoreline length is quoted as 1,020 km, however, this measurement may be subject to the coastline paradox to a greater degree than my measurements in Toronto.

Pan Am Path: An Update on our Legacy

Toronto hosted the Pan Am and Parapan Am Games in 2015. Along with hosting such a large sporting event, Toronto invested in several facilities to host the games, to be reused for community benefit afterwards.

There was also one “legacy project” to pay tribute to the games. The Pan Am Path was a proposed 84-kilometre continuous off-road multi-use trail to connect the city, from the northwest Etobicoke, through downtown, to southeast Scarborough. Much of it was along existing trails, but there were a few gaps that needed to be completed:

  1. East Highland – Orton Park Road to Morningside Park
  2. Don Valley – Forks of the Don to Eglinton Avenue
  3. Waterfront – Stadium Road Park to Sherbourne Common
  4. Humber Marshes – Riverwood Parkway to South Humber Park
  5. Weston – Crawford Jones Memorial to Cruickshank Park
Courtesy City of Toronto
Courtesy Friends of the Pan Am Path

So as a legacy to a significant event that happened in the summer of 2015, these projects should be done almost 4 years later…right?

1. East Highland

This segment would connect from the Forks of Highland Creek to an existing trail where Ellesmere Avenue crosses the East Highland Creek. The current detour is following the existing multi-use trail along West Highland Creek south, and Orton Park Road back north to the Gatineau Hydro Corridor.

The City of Toronto’s project site for this connection says that planning did start with the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority back in 2014, with construction starting last year, and completion in 2020. However, I walked the East Highland Creek back in July, and the only construction I saw was old construction accesses from previous creek remediation work. That said, I was able to reach out to the city and confirm that construction will start this year, and it is still anticipated to be done by next year.

2. Don Valley

This segment would connect an existing trail along the Gatineau Hydro Corridor, down the East Don River to the Forks of the Don. The current detour is along various streets to Taylor Massey Creek, and along that ravine.

The East Don Trail and connection to the Gatineau Hydro Corridor was another project planned through a city-conservation authority partnership back in 2016. Construction started in September last year, and is ongoing for Phases 1. This completes this connection for the Pan Am Path, despite leaving an unfunded gap along the East Don Trail north to Wigmore Park.

3. Waterfront

This connection was missing when the Pan Am Path was first announced, but was well under construction, and was completed in June 2015, one month prior to the opening of the games.

The path was created out of Waterfront Toronto’s revitalization of Queens Quay. The former 4-lane industrial boulevard with a streetcar saw itself cut down to 2 lanes, 1 in each direction north of the streetcar right-of-way, and the former eastbound lanes reclaimed as a dedicated cycling trail and wide pedestrian promenade. For a progressive dense community that was forced into amalgamation and dominated by suburban conservative politics, it was a breath of fresh air. It also made a track record for Waterfront Toronto, the tri-governmental agency that made it happen.

4. Humber Marshes

This is a connection I am not very clear on; the gap exists between King’s Mill Park and South Humber Park, requiring users to travel via Riverwood Parkway and Stephen Drive.

However, where exactly you would place a dedicated trail connection is a mystery to me, as welcome as it would be. This is akin to the TRCA’s proposal to extend a trail through the bottom reach of the Rouge River; it’s entirely a wide river channel with wetlands, and the adjacent tableland is taken up by private residential housing. Creating a path would be tricky and expensive, so this might be one acceptable on-street connection.

5. Weston

This segment would make the Humber River Trail continuous by making a connection between Memorial Park and Cruickshank Park, going under the GO Transit Kitchener line. The current detour up the St Phillips Steps, and along Weston Road.

I have seen no indication of this moving forward, and it’s extremely disappointing. Metrolinx recently completed work here to widen the rail bridge over the Humber River, and while other trail projects have taken advantage of old constructions accesses, nothing seems to have been left behind in this case. For extra irony, it is in the old Ward 11, where local councillor Frances Nunziata hosted a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the path back in 2014.

Other Gaps

Besides the 5 main connections identified, there are still some other gaps that should be addressed to ensure the Pan Am Path is a legacy to be proud of.

Military Trail

This gap requiring use of a sidewalk on Military Trail to cross Highland Creek, and a looparound back under the road could simply use a dedicated bridge to create a more direct route.

Missing Meadoway Segments

While these could be considered in the pipeline, there are segments of trail along the future Gatineau Meadoway that will need to be finished. I have previously written at length about the work that should be done in the corridor.

Old Mill

While dedicated space along the driveway into King’s Mill Park may be a bit of nitpicking, it has always driven me crazy that trail users must face off with vehicles on the skinny Old Mill Road bridge. A dedicated connection should be made, as I suggested in my analysis of TRCA’s Trail Strategy.

Eglinton

It may be of lower priority, but an opportunity exists to improve the trail in the vicinity of Eglinton Avenue. Two additional river crossings grade-separate the trail from Eglinton, and avoid the steep climb around Humber Creek.

Final Notes

As with any trails in Toronto, I place a lot of emphasis on ensuring that off street connections are minimized, and grade separations are created where required. Completing the identified connections and filling the other gaps will mostly address both these elements.

One aspect of the Pan Am Path that I cannot knock on is the branding and wayfinding. The city, in partnership with Friends of the Pan Am Path, have made an excellent website with helpful and informative resources, great navigational signs and maps, and a distinct logo.

At the same time, the branding, wayfinding, and general fanfare for the Pan Am Path feels like a bot of a slap in the face when not all of the larger capital improvements have been completed. Almost four years after the games, I feel the legacy should almost be complete.

Perhaps I am impatient; at least 1/5 of the identified connections is complete, and another 2 will be on the way. But the lack of plans for the remaining 2 really fits with a theme of what feels like a second-class treatment of active transportation in this city; lack of maintenance, lack of building, and lack of progress. Perhaps Toronto’s legacy is talking big, and not following through.

Golf: The Scourge of Ravines

Let me make it very clear: I don’t like golf. It’s nothing to do with the game itself, but for the fact that it is a land hog, exclusive to one sport and restricted to private members, with no space afforded to the general public (full disclosure, I don’t play typical golf, but a derivative: disc golf). In the Greater Toronto Area, a number of golf courses were established and have taken hold in ravines. This creates a problem in two parts: it fractures the natural corridors of our city.

The first part is obvious: golf courses, with their sprawling greens, are heavily managed to allow for a good game. This fragments the surrounding ecosystem, loads rivers with fertilizer, and foregoes the ecosystem benefits of having that land covered in natural vegetation.

The second part is that, because golf courses are mostly restricted to club member access, they create major gaps in Toronto’s active transportation network. They hog the banks of rivers and creeks, which are often conduits for high-quality hiking and biking trails. This is detrimental to the broader regional network, and in fact, the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority (TRCA) recently released a draft Regional Trail Strategy that is directly or indirectly impacted by at least a dozen of them. They can also be barriers to access from and between local streets and neighbourhoods, making them less walkable and cyclable.

When food and beverage contracts at two city-owned golf courses expired in November 2017, the city noted that golf participation rates and revenues have been declining, and that some city-owned courses struggled to break even. This triggered the question of whether the city should be owning golf courses at all. My opinion: absolutely not. A city government has no business owning land that is restricted to a single activity and charging fees for access, let alone putting public resources towards them.

So this spurred me to look at the 7 city-owned golf courses, as well as 12 private courses, to see how much of a barrier they are in these respects, and rank them in terms of parkland and active transportation criteria. Below are the top 7 courses (3 public, 4 private) that could improve Toronto’s ravines and trail systems.

Public Courses

1. Don Valley

Don Valley Golf Course occupies over 2 kilometres of the West Don River, from the northwest corner of Yonge and Wilson, under the 401 to the southeast corner of Earl Bales Park. It also covers over 47 hectares of land, making it the second largest of the public golf courses.

This course is notable for being steps from a subway station, and within reach of high density populations at Sheppard-Yonge, giving it significant potential as an active transportation corridor. Multi-use trails stretch along most of the West Don to the northwest, all the way into Vaughan. Converting this course into parkland would create a direct pedestrian and cycling access from a number of residences in the Wilson Heights, Armour Heights, Lansing and southwest Willowdale neighbourhoods to Yonge Street and the subway.

It would also create an opportunity to fill a dangerous sidewalk gap along Yonge. Currently, if you are travelling north from Wilson on the west side of Yonge, the sidewalk suddenly ends 200 metres north of William Carson Crescent, forcing you to backtrack, or try to jaywalk across 6 lanes of traffic on Yonge plus an offramp from the 401. It’s a dangerous proposition, and coming southbound is marginally better, with one formal onramp crossing and a pedestrian bridge over Yonge. A full-on trail bypass is a solution that could be facilitated, in part, by opening up the golf course to the public.

2. Royal Woodbine

Royal Woodbine Golf Club is a very long a stretched out course, covering about 3.5 kilometres of Mimico Creek. This course is notable for being in what I refer to as the “Pearson Triangle”, an area bounded by the 401, 427 and the GO Transit Kitchener line. This area has almost no parks in it; with the exception of some land south of Disco Road and north of the 409, the only open space you’ll find will be isolated patches along hydro corridors.

It’s hard to argue for park space in an area with no residents, low rise commercial buildings, and airplanes screaming into and out of Pearson. But remember that this is about naturalizing a stretch of Mimico Creek, and also providing an active transportation link. That has benefits for the environment, as well as workers and customers who don’t have a car.

The success of this stretch also depends on addressing barriers to travel north and south of the course. The 401/427 interchange, immediately to the south of the course, represents a huge barrier the Pearson Triangle and a fairly contiguous creek-side trail south of Eglinton Avenue. There are no sidewalks or trails west of Carlingview Drive either. So even if Royal Woodbine could be converted with trails included, it would be considered quite isolated in the broader network, and this knocks it out of the top spot in the ranking.

3. Dentonia Park

Dentonia Park is along a short 400 metre stretch of Taylor Massey Creek. It is also the smallest of all Toronto golf courses by a long shot: 13.7 hectares, with the next course coming in at over 20 hectares.

This course is small, but its location is critical. It’s the only break in an otherwise continuous, grade-separated, high quality, 13.5 kilometre natural active transportation corridor from Warden Subway Station all the way to Lake Ontario. By opening this course up and creating a grade-separated crossing of Victoria Park Avenue, you could commute by bike without encountering any cars outside of the first and last mile. It would be a #bikeTO fantasy come true.

Private

1. Oakdale

Oakdale Golf and Country Club covers 1,300 metres of Black Creek, which is mostly concentrated in the south part of the course. It is also the largest course in Toronto, covering 88.7 hectares.

Oakdale is a barrier to continuous trail access along Black Creek, and opening it up connect Downsview Dells and Chalkfarm Park. The TRCA has proposed a creative solution to the golf club’s presence by proposing a trail corridor that follows Heathrow Creek to Jane and Wilson, and then redirects users to the Humber River valley. I have provided feedback on the latter part of TRCA’s proposal.

However, this is not an optimal routing, as it still requires climbing out of the Black Creek ravine, and it diverts users away from existing parkland in Chalkfarm Park. This golf course could contribute towards a complete trail network from York University to Jane and Wilson, and has the potential to add significant natural lands to the Black Creek watershed and the broader Downsview community.

2. Donalda

The Donalda Club spreads over 3.25 km of the East Don River, 800 metres of Deerlick Creek, as well as a total of nearly 500 metres of at least three other minor streams. It is the second largest course in Toronto, covering 77.2 hectares.

Donalda is actually the one course to my knowledge that allows some limited access: you can cross between the end of Three Valleys Drive and Chipping Road via a short walkway across the course. However, the owners make it very clear that straying left or right is trespassing on private property.

The result is detrimental to the trail network. Existing adjacent trails along the East Don Trail currently end north of Lawrence Avenue East and east of Don Mills Road, creating a gap in what will otherwise be a continuous trail from the city’s north boundary to the lake (once the trail between Wynford Drive and the Forks of the Don is completed). There are also three potential connections to existing local trails along Deerlick Creek and two other unnamed tributaries. Opening up this course would make a significant improvement to local and regional trail systems.

3. Islington

Islington Golf Club spreads over 1.8 km of Mimico Creek. It is a medium-sized course relative to others within Toronto, covering 51.2 hectares.

The Islington Golf Club creates a gap in the trail network along Mimico Creek. Trail users must currently divert via Kipling Avenue, Burnhamthorpe Road and Dundas Street West to get between the trail segments. It’s not the worst detour in the city, but it’s enough. Closing this gap could contribute towards a continuous trail between Eglinton and Bloor, and perhaps further north to the Pearson Triangle (see Royal Woodbine above) and further south if existing segments were stitched together.

4. Markland Wood

Markland Wood Golf Club spreads over 2.75 km of Etobicoke Creek. It is also a medium-sized course relative to others within Toronto, covering 46.0 hectares.

Markland Wood creates a gap in the trail network along Etobicoke Creek. While “Tributary 4” provides an alternative parallel route, it can feel tight and confined relative to the open valley of the main creek. Closing this gap could make a continuous trail from Dixie Road (north of Courtneypark Drive) to Dundas Street, and all the way to Lake Ontario once the gap between Dundas and the Queensway is addressed. Again, this is something the TRCA has proposed, and I have presented a counterproposal on.

Conclusion

These seven courses received a score of 3 in at least three categories of evaluation. The evaluation of all courses, the evaluation criteria, and a map of the courses are posted below. Do you agree with the ranking? Are there criteria that were missed or require more weight? Let me know what you think in the comments.

Public Review: An Examination of the Meadoway

Expanding on a Twitter thread I wrote back in April 2018, I took a look at The Meadoway, a project by the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority, in partnership with the City of Toronto and The W. Garfield Weston Foundation.  The project is a reimagination of the 16 kilometre Gatineau Hydro Corridor, which is a provincial hydro line between the Bermondsey substation in Thorncliffe Park northeast to the city border in Rouge Park.  As the name suggests, the corridor would be converted from the manicured grass that exists in many sections into a meadow habitat, and would also include a multi-use path to support cycling and walking.

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Courtesy of The Meadoway

I took a look at the proposal and did some exploring of The Meadoway myself.  Below is an interactive map you can use to follow along through this analysis.

Build Bridges, Not Barriers

Naturally, with all the walking I do, I have quite a few thoughts about road, rail and ravine crossings; the 3 Rs.  I’ve walked my fair share of uility corridors (Sept. 2016, Feb. 2017, Feb. 5 and 10, 2018), and have experienced first hand what works, what doesn’t, and what sucks when you got nothing at all.

R number one is roads.  All road crossings on the existing trail segments are at-grade, and generally take one of two forms: an unprotected crosswalk (but sometimes with raised and/or textured pavement), or a traffic light.  The former is used primarily on smaller, two-lane local roads with little traffic, and the latter is used for all other locations where traffic is heavier.  Either a dedicated mid-block traffic light is set up to allow pedestrians and cyclists to cross, or the trail is purposefully directed to an existing road intersection where traffic lights and crosswalks already exist.

In my opinion, unprotected crossings are sufficient on quiet, local, 2-lane roads with 30 km/h speed limits, as long as they are scaled appropriately; textured pavement and signs at a minimum, using raised bumps and pavement markings and giving right-of-way to pedestrians and cyclists as the road or trail traffic increases.  When it comes to arterial roads, a high quality trail should stop using at-grade crossings, and give increasing priority to trail users.

It’s hard to argue against using existing traffic signals and crosswalks where a utility corridor already meets an intersection. But from my experience, mid-block crossings that use traffic signals are problematic. All of these traffic signals are not programmed to be responsive to and give priority to trail users during the day; instead, they are programmed to sync with an existing time plan that controls other traffic signals and vehicular traffic flow in the area. This means a trail users could push a “beg button” and wait a couple minutes for the signal to change. This does not give any priority to trail users, and it creates risks of trail users jaywalking into traffic, or vehicles ignoring the signal. It begs the question: what kind of city are we designing that we are making trail users “beg” to cross at all?

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I would argue Toronto’s famous yellow crosswalks would be more appropriate for some crossings where traffic isn’t too heavy along the trail or the road, and vehicular speed limits are lower, as it safely gives on-demand priority to trail users, and allows vehicles to proceed as soon as the trail user has finished crossing. It strikes a balance. However, as soon as traffic or speed limits increase, I’d argue that grade separated crossings should be required. The city is generally anemic to this, however; they are much more expensive due to potential utility conflicts and accessibility requirements, are disruptive during construction overall, and require an unreasonably high bar of risk.

If we’re going to create a high quality multi-use trails in the Meadoway, and frankly anywhere else in the city, we have to stop cheaping out on our infrastructure like this, and start putting greater value on trail users’ time, experience, and safety. But with a total budget of $85 million (for everything; naturalization and infrastructure), I’m not entirely confident that it is enough to cover the 8 arterial road crossings (Eglinton, Victoria Park, Kennedy, Midland, Scarborough Golf Club, Ellesmere, Neilson, Morningside) that currently have no infrastructure. And it sure doesn’t address the 4 existing mid-block crossings on arterial roads (Markham, Bellamy, Warden, Pharmacy) that currently use traffic signals.

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That’s roads. The second of the 3 Rs of trail crossings is railways, and the only rail crossing along the Meadoway is the corridor with the TTC’s Line 3 and GO Transit’s Stouffville Line. As it stands now, getting across the corridor (between Kennedy and Midland) requires a trail user to detour south through Jack Goodlad Park, and use an existing pedestrian bridge between Mooregate and Tara Avenues. This doubles the required travelling distance (900 to 1,800 metres) and takes trail users away from the meadow, requiring a meander through an adjacent neighbourhood. It might be attractive to use this existing infrastructure and save more money, but this bridge is fairly skinny and does not deliver a good user experience. Once again, if the Meadoway’s goals are to deliver an attractive alternative transportation corridor that stays with the natural environment, a new crossing is required.

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The third of the 3 Rs of trails crossings is ravines. One of the Meadoway goals is creating east-west linkages between the ravines of Scarborough. This will involve crossing 3 major ravines: East Highland Creek, one of its tributaries, and West Highland Creek. The latter is already completed, and is done quite well in my opinion, interconnecting with the other existing north-south trails. However, the other two are quite steep and have considerable erosion issues.

A multi-use path winding down a slope makes sense if you’re trying to get to a connecting north-south trail within a ravine, if/when they exist, so this is definitely a benefit of taking that as a main approach. The drawback is increased distance, stemming from the fact that as ravine slopes increase in grade, you usually need longer switchbacks to accommodate users, particularly those living with a disability. It’s absolutely necessary, it just lengthens the distance if you’re just following the Meadoway. But including a bridge structure is an opportunity to reducing that distance for those going through, and also to provide an opportunity for stunning views. This should be considered for the three major ravines the Meadoway will go through.

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Over the Line

As with any project, you have to set a scope.  While I completely understand the reason for doing this, I’m kind of left wishing that we could go beyond the scope in two specific instances.  One has to do with missing links in the broader trail system that the Meadoway should connect to. The other is the east and west limits applied to the Gatineau Hydro Corridor itself.

The Meadoway aims to be an east-west link between north-south oriented ravines and parklands that have trails. But some ravines and other parklands do not have these connections.  These are illustrated and listed below:

  1. In the west, the East Don Trail is currently non-existent between Concorde Place and the Forks of the Don. However, the city is currently planning its implementation and connection to the Meadoway, and construction is set to begin this year.
  2. A north-south utility corridor between Ashtonbee Reservoir Park and the north end of the city is mostly accessible to the public, but does not have a formal trail or well-defined footpath to follow.
  3. A footpath exists adjacent to Massey Creek, but it is not formal, and does not exist south of Bertrand Avenue.
  4. A formal trail exists along the Scarborough RT corridor between Kennedy Station and the bridge mentioned above, adjacent to John Goodlad Park. There is no connection north into the bounds of the Meadoway corridor, or to Lawrence Avenue.
  5. There is a trail network along the Dorset Branch of West Highland Creek up until Brimley Road, and then there is not trail further west to its intersection with the Meadoway.
  6. A collection of footpaths exist around the East Highland Creek area, but there are no formal connections south to the Highland Forks, or north to Centennial College and other parklands.
  7. There are no paths along Ellesmere Ravine, and similar to the ravine to the west, no formal connections south to the Highland Forks.
  8. The Meadoway is pretty much established east of Conlins Road, but not paths exist in the adjacent assorted parklands.

Building these connections is critical to linking more neighbourhoods to the Meadoway, and it meshes with the goal of allowing greater travel without leaving the natural environment.

The other scope limitation is along the hydro corridor itself.  While the Meadoway’s scope ends at the East Don River and Meadowvale Road, the hydro corridor continues beyond these bounds, and not including these end pieces creates some missing links too.

In the west, the Gatineau Hydro Corridor continues to Thorncliffe Park, where the transmission lines connects to Hydro One’s Leaside Transformer Station at 1080 Millwood Road. Extending the Meadoway west would create a great opportunity to better connect the neighbourhoods of Leaside, Thorncliffe Park, Flemingdon Park, and Bermondsey, which are currently fractured by the Don Valleys and the Parkway. In the east, the Gatineau Hydro Corridor continues into Rouge National Urban Park.  Extending the Meadoway east to the city border could provide a critical connection to the park, over the Rouge River to two existing north-south trails, and the future Beare Road Park.

A First Phase

The Meadoway’s vision is amazing, and it will be an incredible improvement to a considerable stretch of Toronto. I have my criticisms, but these aren’t really directed at the project’s lead, the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority. It’s more so towards their partner, the City of Toronto. This will be a natural corridor that links ravines, so that part of the project is covered. What needs improvement is the hard infrastructure: the trail, it’s crossings, and its connections. That should be the city’s responsibility, financially, and from the standpoint of creating recreational opportunities and building a transportation network.

If anything, the Meadoway project’s current scope should be considered a first phase. The second phase should be led by the city, with the goal of considerably improving the trail within the corridor, as well as connecting the broader trail network and the city as a whole.

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The West Water Border

Etobicoke Creek is part of Toronto’s west boundary. Tucked away at the edge of the city, it can be easy to forget or dismiss. I took the effort to get out there in what was an unusually hot September day; it was already above 30 degrees by 11AM.

https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js Getting off the TTC at Sherman Mall, I headed down Sherway Drive, which leads down into the ravine. The road was strange and abandoned, I was fairly surprised this was a link into a trail network, and it was in a bit of a dilapitated state. Online documents suggest this part of the trail, the ‘Sherway Link,’ is undergoing improvements soon. Eventually, the beat-up road gave way to a gravel trail and a field, in view of the QEW / Gardiner / 427 interchange. The city’s maps label this parcel of land (145 Sherway Drive) as general ‘open space’ with no name.

 

To continue south, I had to go under the Queen Elizabeth Way, named not after Elizabeth II, but after the Queen Mother, wife of King George VI. Overpasses are something that have been interesting to me as of late, but I didn’t think the ‘Middle Road’ would be anything special. I clearly wasn’t thinking it through.

It was something to behold, with the concrete arches and bleached rocks over and adjacent to calm glassy water. The colour of the graffiti tags and green stains on the concrete added something else to it. If it weren’t for the roar and thudding of highway traffic above, it would be a serene hangout.

History time. This was originally built by Ontario’s then-Department of Highways, as ‘The Middle Road’ in the 1930s (the Ministry of Transportation is still the Ministry of Highways in some sense, even 80 years later). Apparently the Minister and Deputy Minister of the day were inspired by German autobahn design, and wanted to bring it to Ontario. They ordered the Middle Road to be designed to these kind of standards, and it opened between Toronto and Burlington in 1937.

According to Cameron Bevers, who publishes a photographic history of the QEW at thekingshighway.ca, the Etobicoke Creek overpass was built in 1932 to carry a four-lane undivided highway, and it is the oldest structure on the QEW. The structure was widened in 1953 to accommodate two additional traffic lanes along with a centre highway median, and widened again in 1967 for six lanes. The apparent design difference should be noted on either side of this bridge for the ramps to and from the 427. These appear to be more of the style of bents you would find along the Gardiner or DVP, and these were completed in the 60s with the six-lane widening. I encourage you to check out more of Cameron’s website for more cool pictures and information, and hat tip to Twitter user “Not Lost” (@EdgeOfSaturn) for pointing me to this information.

https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js Continuing south, you enter Etobicoke Valley Park. There was some kind of instream infrastructure along the way, and there was a clear beaten path on either side, providing a bit of a risky ad-hoc crossing between Toronto and Mississauga.

I also came across this snake. A contact of mine believes it is a northern watersnake.

Into the middle of the park, south of Horner Avenue, the trees get thick and you approach the inside of a significant meander in the creek. It’s here that you see some of the watercourses work over thousands of years, as it carved through deposited till and into the shale beneath. I get excited whenever I run into plentiful shale rocks beside water; it’s an excellent opportunity to skip rocks.

 

 

Further south, I was also quite intrigued by the amount of armourstone laid in the creek valley as an erosion protection measure. It came up to breastbone height in some places, and with the steep valley wall on the other side, it felt like you were walking through some lush jungle gauntlet.

https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js Now digging into Torornto archives for this post, I came upon this very intriguing plan for part of the former Village of Long Branch, which proposed a number of houses up to and over Etobicoke Creek. Whether or not this was completed in full is unclear, but at least some of it was. In 1954, there was reported carnage from Hurricane Hazel causing flooding at the mouth of the creek, including the losss of over 40 homes and 6 deaths. Another 147 cottages at the mouth were declared unfit for habitation after the flooding when sanitation facilities broke down. As with many other areas throughout Toronto and the greater area, dwellings were removed from the floodplain, and the area was turned into parkland. The park was dedicated to longtime village Reeve Marie Curtis in 1959.

https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js Marie Curtis now has a lovely boardwalk and beach. I knew it was going to be hot, but previous experiences of swimming in Lake Ontario had been frigid. Nonetheless, I brought my swimming shorts with me, and I’m glad I did. The water was perfect. I saw other tweets that day of people complaining that it was too warm; clearly, they have not swam in Lake Erie, like I often did as a teenager growing up in southwestern Ontario. Conquering Lake Ontario was quite the accomplishment in late September, I thought, considering it was generally a colder lake in some spots. It definitely fit with a narrative by Shawn Micallef at that time, that the common thought of summer ending after Labour Day was a myth that needed dispelling, so I had to give him a shout out.

https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js I also saw this tweet a couple days later. No wonder it was warm.

https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js I proceeded along Etobicoke’s lakeshore from here, but that is a whole other can of worms. I’ll save that for a post on another day.