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A creek revived: Students help restore Medway Creek

Written by  Brad Glasman, Manager, Conservation Services, Upper Thames River Conservation Authority

Southwestern Ontario’s Medway Creek meanders through intensive agricultural land before it enters the City of London and flows into the North Thames River. The creek is affected by erosion from the surrounding fields and the streambanks, as well as lack of aquatic habitat and shade.

A team of Western University students helps install the live stakes along the banks of Medway Creek. © UTRCA

A team of Western University students helps install the live stakes along the banks of Medway Creek. © UTRCA

As a tributary of the Thames River, the Medway is also part of the Lake Erie watershed. The Thames River’s connection to algae in the Great Lakes is sparking local action. Around Lake Erie, work continues to solve the problem of harmful algae blooms, which affect drinking water, the local economy and the health of the lake. The federal government has identified the Thames watershed as a priority because of the phosphorus the river carries into Lake St. Clair and Lake Erie, triggering algae blooms. They’ve set a target of reducing phosphorus loads in the Thames and its tributaries by 40 per cent in order to improve water quality downstream.  

Medway Creek is much loved by the local community and restoration and monitoring efforts by the Upper Thames River Conservation Authority (UTRCA) and other organizations have been ongoing for years. From 2015-2016, the UTRCA worked with the community to enhance the creek in targeted areas. The one-kilometre stretch of creek that we worked on for this project was wide and sluggish, with limited habitat for aquatic life, and needed improvement.

Project funding came from WWF Canada’s Loblaw Water Fund, plus the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (OMNRF) and the London Community Foundation. The landowner also provided support and in-kind work.

Here’s what we did:

In-stream restoration work: Using a large excavator, round stones were strategically placed in the stream to narrow the channel and create natural riffles and pools. The water is now faster-moving and has more dissolved oxygen for aquatic life. The riffles and pools also provide spawning sites and habitat for benthic invertebrates (animals with no backbone that live at the bottom of rivers, such as crayfish, caddisflies and mayflies). Wooden structures and tree root wads were installed along the streambank to create shelter for fish and amphibians. All of this work was done at specific locations throughout the entire length of creek on the property, with the help of the OMNRF Stewardship Rangers.

Tree and shrub planting: Local school students along with the Friends of Medway Creek and parent volunteers planted 1,000 native trees and shrubs throughout the floodplain and along the stream. Two secondary schools and one elementary school provided 190 students over three days to help with the planting. More than eight hectares of habitat were restored or created.

The planting site was ideal for a class of primary students from St. Catherine of Siena Catholic School to gain experience planting 250 native trees and shrubs to help create a tree buffer along Medway Creek. The students were also taught about the values of the project during the in-field experience. © UTRCA

The planting site was ideal for a class of primary students from St. Catherine of Siena Catholic School to gain experience planting 250 native trees and shrubs to help create a tree buffer along Medway Creek. The students were also taught about the values of the project during the in-field experience. © UTRCA

Stream bioengineering: Bioengineering is the use of living and dead plant materials in combination with rocks to create habitat and protect the streambank from erosion. Thirty-three Western University students and several members of the Thames River Anglers Association helped protect 300 metres of creek bank from erosion by installing bundles of dormant shrub branches and stems. As they take root and grow, these sandbar and pussy willow and red osier dogwood shrubs will offer shade and leaf litter to the creek as well as stabilizing and protecting the banks from erosion.

Monitoring and assessments: An aquatic biologist sampled fish and benthic invertebrates before and after the project, with the assistance of school students. The results indicate a fairly healthy and diverse warm water ecosystem that should continue to improve with habitat restoration efforts. With ongoing monitoring and research, we hope to show other benefits of the project, such as reduced pollutants in the water due to the uptake of nutrients (phosphorus and nitrogen) by the plants and aquatic life, as well as lower water temperatures and improved stream aesthetics.

Many hands make light work: Community involvement was the key to this project’s success, and approximately 265 local volunteers and students participated. They included the Friends of Medway Creek, Thames River Anglers Association, OMNRF Stewardship Rangers, and students from Western University, Montcalm Secondary School, Catholic Central Secondary School and St. Catherine of Siena Catholic School.

Since 2014, WWF’s Loblaw Water Fund supports critical projects that protect and restore freshwater ecosystems across the country. Loblaw Water Fund grantees — including conservation authorities, waterkeeper groups and First Nations — deliver tangible results that help improve freshwater health in Canada in several ways. The fund is supported through partial proceeds from Loblaw’s charge-for-plastic shopping bag program, which has eliminated more than eight billion plastic shopping bags from Loblaw banner stores nationally since 2007. The next grant application cycle for the 2017 Loblaw Water Fund opens on October 24, 2016 and closed on December 16, 2016. Visit wwf.ca/waterfund to apply.