Alternatives for Laurel Creek on Campus

Susan McLernon
School of Urban and Regional Planning,
University of Waterloo,
Waterloo, ON

In Winter 1996 term, graduate students at the School of Urban and Regional Planning, produced a report on alternatives for Laurel Creek on University of Waterloo campus. The students, members of PLAN 720, worked under the guidance of Professor Larry Martin to produce the report, Towards Rehabilitation of Laurel Creek. The report is available on the internet at .

The goal of the class was "To provide recommendations for improving the water quality of Laurel Creek within the University of Waterloo campus while attempting to balance the interests of all concerned". The goal reflected concerns from students, University administrators, City of Waterloo planners, and others that water quality in Laurel Creek was degraded on University property. The University of Waterloo campus represents approximately 10% of the Laurel Creek watershed, and is upstream of most of the City of Waterloo (GRCA 1993). Thus, poor water quality in the creek on University lands affects the remainder of the watershed.

Members of the class recognized the importance of understanding all issues affecting water quality in the creek. Accordingly, the class divided into work teams which could each collect information about a series of topics. We collected information from published documents, such as the Laurel Creek Watershed Study (GRCA 1993), University of Waterloo Master Plan (UW 1992), and Subwatershed Plan 311 (City of Waterloo 1995). We also conducted interviews with stakeholders within the University, and from the wider community. Finally, we held a workshop to elicit feedback and guidance from a variety of persons with expertise and interests in Laurel Creek, water quality, the University of Waterloo, and other relevant issues.

It became clear that there were many issues relevant to any rehabilitation or restoration of Laurel Creek. Water quality issues relate directly to physical/chemical and biological properties of the Creek. Stakeholder issues represent a summary of concerns expressed by members of the University community, the wider community, and interest groups, in relation to any proposed changes to the stream or reservoirs on campus. Both sets of issues are equally valid and real, and must be considered if rehabilitation of the Creek on campus is to occur.

Water Quality Issues

  1. Aquatic habitat - This issue refers to habitat for fish, particularly sportfish such as bass and trout, and includes the diversity of substrates, abundance and diversity of benthic invertebrates and other food sources, presence of appropriate spawning grounds, and abundance of vegetative debris. On campus, aquatic habitat is severely degraded, particularly within Columbia Lake.

  2. Sediment - Sources of sediment on campus include the reservoir at the Laurel Creek Conservation Area immediately upstream of North Campus, runoff from agricultural and urban sources, and stormwater inputs. Sediment builds up in campus reservoirs and must frequently be dredged, at high cost to the University.

  3. Water temperature - The temperature of Laurel Creek and Columbia Lake is very warm, especially in the summer months. Warm water, accompanied by high nutrient levels, encourages the growth of algae, causing problems of murkiness, aesthetics, and consumption of dissolved oxygen.

  4. Dissolved oxygen - Lack of oxygen in Laurel Creek and the campus reservoirs can be a serious problem in summer. Periodically, dissolved oxygen levels on campus fall below the minimum required to sustain life (GRCA 1993).

  5. Nutrients - Nutrients, especially nitrogen and phosphorus, are added to Laurel Creek on campus by animal feces, organic decay, and runoff. Fertilizers and other products added to recreational, agricultural, and homeowners' lands are a major source in campus waters. Nutrients encourage the growth of algae, with accompanying problems as described above.

  6. Heavy metals - Copper, zinc, lead, chromium, cadmium, and other toxic metals are added to Laurel Creek by the main stormwater input on campus. This outlet collects stormwater from most of South Campus, and many streets, businesses and industries around Phillip and Columbia Streets. Copper has been measured at lethal levels on campus and several other places along the creek (GRCA 1993).

Stakeholder Issues

  1. Aesthetics - Stakeholders felt strongly that any changes made to the Creek or reservoirs should maintain views and access to these bodies of water. The reservoirs in particular were believed to be attractions for alumni, potential students, and other visitors. Canada Day celebrations beside Columbia Lake are a very popular event with the University and wider communities, drawing about 50% of the University's annual outside visitors. Some stakeholders pointed out that sediment and algae in the Creek and reservoirs cause unpleasant views and odours from time to time. Also, stormwater inputs and poor treatment of the Creek create instream accumulations of scum, oil, and debris that do not well represent the University's commitment to environmental quality.

  2. Recreation - The University of Waterloo has a shortage of outdoor recreational facilities. Many stakeholders were anxious that there should be no net loss of recreational opportunities resulting from water quality improvements.

  3. Town-gown relations - University administrators felt that the wider community does not recognize the University's commitment to the environment and Laurel Creek. City of Waterloo residents and staff described the need for UW to take an active role in cleaning up water quality on campus. This need was identified by the Laurel Creek Watershed Study (GRCA 1993).

  4. Master plan - The University of Waterloo Compels Master Plan (UW 1992) makes recommendations for the future of the University. There is a contradiction inherent in the Master Plan: it suggests that environmental rehabilitation should be consistent with the Laurel Creek Watershed Study, but recommends enlarging Columbia Lake. This would be counter to the Watershed Study, which recommends converting Columbia Lake to a naturalized stream. The PLAN 720 group suggested that this contradiction could be resolved by initiating a process to preserve valued aspects of Columbia Lake (such as aesthetic views), while improving water quality downstream.

  5. Safety - Bacterial counts in campus reservoirs are dangerous for human contact, and pose a health hazard to students and visitors alike. Many stakeholders felt that rehabilitation of streamside vegetation, stream channels, and reservoirs must respect personal safety issues. This includes consideration of pathways, animal populations, fish consumption, and personal contact with the water.

  6. Economics - The class recognized the financial difficulty of implementing significant changes to Laurel Creek. It was recommended that some of the larger options could be phased in over several years, perhaps with some cost-sharing from other agencies, such as the City of Waterloo or Grand River Conservation Area. Many small, incremental changes were suggested, which could be put in place immediately at very low cost to the University.

The issues listed above were considered when developing options for Laurel Creek on campus. The class recognized that no single solution existed for any part of the creek which would address all the relevant issues. Thus, for each component identified as being in need of rehabilitation, more than one alternative was presented. Since our stated goal was to improve water quality, we felt that it would be beneficial to identify the options which would best achieve this goal. These "recommended" alternatives are identified in the list below.

Alternatives for Laurel Creek on Campus:

  1. Do nothing (all locations)

    This option requires no changes to current management practices or existing structures. The disadvantage of this option is the continued degradation for water quality, with the associated costs for dredging and eventual remediation measures. There may also be negative implications for town-gown relations and aesthetic quality.

  2. Columbia Lake:

    2.1 Stream system (dry facility) - RECOMMENDED OPTION
    Columbia Lake will be converted to a stable, meandering stream with vegtated banks and a natural floodplain. Special features such as wetlands, playground equipment, and research stations may also be included.

    2.2 Lake by-pass
    An earth berm will be used to separate Columbia Lake from a stream on the west side. Banks of the lake and stream will have riparian vegetation. Water quality in the lake will continue to degrade in this option, but water quality in Laurel Creek would be improved.

    2.3 Modified lake
    Columbia Lake will be somewhat reduced in size, with a low flow by-pass installed on the bottom to transport cooler water from upstream of the lake to Laurel Creek downstream. Wetland and riparian vegetation can be added to the lake edges in a manner that would maintain aesthetic views. The lake will be dredged and deepened to reduce its negative impacts on downstream water quality.

  3. Health and Safety Reflecting Pond:

    3.1 Pond/Wetland
    This option will slightly reduce the size of the existing pond, and add wetland and aquatic vegetation along the edges. Water would be encouraged to move through more quickly by a dredged center channel.

    3.2 Stream system - RECOMMENDED OPTION
    A naturalized, meandering stream will be created at the site of the current pond. This requires some changes to existing structures and dredging of the center channel. Natural riparian and wetland vegetation will be added to the stream edges.

  4. Laurel Lake

    4.1 Lake by-pass
    This option is similar to option 2.2 as described for Columbia Lake. An earth berm will be constructed to divert water from Laurel Creek away from the lake. This option preserves the aesthetic qualities of a reservoir on South Campus, while offering some improvement to water quality downstream.

    4.2 Pond/wetland - RECOMMENDED OPTION
    Laurel Lake will be somewhat reduced in size, with wetland and aquatic vegetation added. A low-flow bottom bypass or dredged center channel will allow movement of cool water through the pond.

  5. Channel Naturalization

    5.1 Restore riparian vegetation - RECOMMENDED OPTION
    Vegetation on streambanks will buffer runoff pollution of the stream, provide habitat for birds and other wildlife, and enhance the natural appearance of the stream.

    5.2 Restore natural streambanks - RECOMMENDED OPTION
    Gabions can be removed where appropriate, and regrading can be used to help maintain stream stability. Revegetation is an important component of this option.

    5.3 Restore creek meanders - RECOMMENDED OPTION
    Some sections of the creek can be restored to its historic path. In other locations, meanders may be created in conjunction with other restorative work.

  6. Stormwater Management

    6.1 Constructed wetland detention facility - RECOMMENDED OPTION
    Storrnwater from the main outlet pipe by the Student Life Centre will be directed into a constructed wetland facility. This facility would mitigate some negative impacts of stormwater, through mechanisms such as deposition of sediment and vegetative uptake of pollutants.

    6.2 Parking lot stormwater management - RECOMMENDED OPTION

    Currently, most campus parking lots drain runoff directly into Laurel Creek. We suggest that as reconstruction occurs, stormwater management should be incorporated into campus lots.

  7. Small Incremental Options:

    7.1 Reservoirs and creek - RECOMMENDED OPTION

    7.2 Stormwater management - RECOMMENDED OPTIONS

    Reduce runoff from North Campus agricultural and recreational fields.
    Implement at-source controls where possible on South Campus, for example, when buildings are constructed or expanded.

Before any alternatives are implemented, we strongly recommend that a consultation process should occur. The feasibility and legality of any option needs to be investigated before they can be put in place, and appropriate stakeholders should be included in the process. Some suggestions for implementation are included in the report.


City of Waterloo 1995. Suhwatershed Plan 311. Final report prepared by Paragon Engineering Ltd., McCormick Rankin and Assoicates Ltd., Ecoplans Ltd., CH2M Hill Engineering Ltd.

Grand River Conservation Authority (GRCA). 1993. Laurel Creek Watershed Study.

University of Waterloo (UW). 1992. University of Waterloo Campus Master Plan. Prepared by Berridge Lewinberg Greenberg Ltd., Hemson Consulting Ltd., Hough Stansbury Woodland Ltd., BA Consulting Group Ltd., UMA Engineering Ltd.

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