Planning Issues In The Laurel Creek Watershed

Water Resources Engineer,
Watershed Resources Planning Section,
Grand River Conservation Authority
Senior Water Resources Engineer,
Watershed Resources Planning Section,
Grand River Conservation Authority
Senior Resource Planner,
Planning And Resource Coordination Section,
Grand River Conservation Authority

1. Background

The Grand River Conservation Authority is a corporate body and was formed as a result of the conservation movement which began in Ontario in the early nineteen thirties. The Conservation Authorities Act was passed in 1946 in response to flooding and erosion problems which had occurred across the Province of Ontario. It was recognized that such problems did not confine themselves within a municipal boundary, but had impacts to an entire river system or watershed and hence several municipalities.

The Conservation Authorities Act allowed for the formation of Conservation Authorities by municipalities within a watershed. Support would be shared by the member municipalities and the Province of Ontario through the Ministry of Natural Resources. Under the terms of the Act, the Grand Valley Conservation Authority was formed in 1948 and later amalgamated with the Grand River Conservation Commission in 1966 to establish the existing Grand River Conservation Authority. The broad goal and objectives of all Conservation Authorities is to conserve, restore, develop and manage the natural resources of the Watershed other than gas, oil, coal and minerals.

Through partnerships with its member municipalities, the Province and other agencies and groups, the Grand River Conservation Authority has facilitated, coordinated and managed a wide range of programs and projects and has played an essential role in promoting public conservation awareness since its inception. Increasing demands on water and other natural systems have led to the realization that more comprehensive and coordinated practices that preserve and restore diversity and sustainability of the watershed are imperative. Erosion and Flood Control continue to be the primary focus. The Authority operates seven major dams to reduce flooding in downstream communities but also to augment low flows during the summer months.

To-day the core programs of the Grand River Conservation Authority include construction of local erosion control and flood control projects, rehabilitation of local streams and ponds, an extensive flood warning system, flood plain management including the regulation and restriction of new development within the flood plain, preservation of wetlands and watershed planning.

Given the size of the Grand River Watershed this has been quite an undertaking. The Grand River Watershed has a drainage area of 6,800 square kilometres and contains the largest inland river system in Southern Ontario. The watershed supports a population approaching 700,000. The Kitchener-Waterloo, Cambridge, Guelph Area, located in the central portion of the watershed and known as Canada's Technology Triangle, is considered one of the fastest growing areas in Canada. In order to plan effectively for this increasing development we must understand the characteristics and inter-relationships of the natural resources within a drainage basin. Appropriate development areas can then be identified and measures established to prevent adverse impacts upon the natural systems.

2. Watershed Planning

Municipalities have the legislative authority and responsibility to undertake comprehensive land use planning. However, land use planning has not always provided sufficient protection of the environment, particularly from negative impacts of changing land uses. This has largely been due to the lack of adequate information for land use decision making. When ecosystem considerations are integrated into the planning process, it is more likely that land use decisions will be made that will not jeopardize the ecosystem and human health. The ecosystem approach recognizes that ecosystems have limits to the amount of stress they can accommodate before the ecosystems are irreversibly degraded or destroyed. With the emphasis on the protection of the form and function of the natural environment, it is no longer acceptable, from an ecological as well as an economic prospective, to impair water quality, degrade aquatic/terrestrial habitats, reduce baseflows, lower groundwater tables, drain and sewer large areas, or line watercourses with concrete to the point where the integrity of the natural system is lost.

Watershed planning and land use planning consider the same environmental issues but from differing viewpoints and differing levels of detail. A land use planning decision for a site specific development can influence many watershed management and land use planning issues. The input of environmental objectives and management recommendations to the land use planning process at appropriate stages should promote informed decision making, which will in turn lead to greater efficiency and effectiveness of both processes. Watershed and subwatershed studies do not determine land use; instead these plans establish constraints, opportunities and approaches for input into land use planning decisions. It is the purpose of the watershed/subwatershed plan to identify areas of concern and requirements for additional study at latter stages in the planning process.

Watershed/subwatershed studies have evolved over time from simple assessments which focus on remediating existing environmental problems to more complex multi-disciplinary studies which focus on protecting and enhancing the environment. Figure 1 illustrates the evolution of Subwatershed planning from Master Drainage Plans, generally focusing on drainage and Stormwater Management solutions to fully integrated environmental protection Subwatershed Plans.

Given that Conservation Authorities are the only agencies in Ontario with surface water drainage boundaries, they are particularly well suited to coordinating watershed management activities including watershed planning.

One of the first Subwatershed studies within Regional Municipality of Waterloo was the Strasburg Creek Master Watershed Plan. Towards the end of the development of this plan, and in part at the initiation of the Steering Committee of the Strasburg Creek Master Watershed Plan, an ``ad hoc" Watershed Master Plan Committee was struck.

This Committee, which continues today, consists of senior agency resource planners, consultants, and developers from within the Regional Municipality of Waterloo. The role of the Committee shifted from steering the Strasburg Creek Master Watershed Plan to identifying priorities for planning future Watershed and Subwatershed Plans within the Regional Municipality of Waterloo. Recognizing the importance of Subwatershed planning and also a lack of resources to complete all the work at once, a watershed prioritization process was initiated. Criteria included development pressure, resource significance, environmental sensitivity, flood hazard, and also lead agency responsibility (local, regional, provincial).

To-date approximately a dozen watershed/subwatershed plans have been completed or are in progress. The priority list for watershed planning extends beyond the boundaries of the Regional Municipality of Waterloo to include all areas within the Grand River basin. The schedule for watershed/subwatershed plan development is influenced by budget constraints and hence extends well into the next century.

3. Laurel Creek Watershed Study

Laurel Creek Watershed Study was one of the first "priority" plans to be completed as it ranked highest in all criteria categories. Major issues included increasing development pressure in the west side of the City of Waterloo, the increased flood risk resulting from this development to existing development in the Waterloo core, groundwater protection, as well as the identification and protection of Provincially Significant Wetlands, watercourses, fisheries habitat, and Environmentally Significant Policy Areas.

Integrated Resource management is carried out at various levels of scale and detail. The Laurel Creek Watershed Study set the context and framework at an overview scale for further planning exercises at the more detailed level. These include the Laurel Subwatershed Plans, District Plans, Environmental Assessments for infrastructure, and finally draft plans of subdivisions. Targets which were designed within the framework of the Watershed Study, are implemented in these more detailed planning and design exercises. Targets established during the Laurel Creek Watershed Study provided guidance for water quality and quantity control criteria to be used in the design of urban areas, (see Appendix A of the Laurel Creek Watershed Report). These targets included:

To-date, most of the Subwatershed Plans on the west side of Waterloo which will guide development well into the next century are essentially complete. Infrastructure planning is well underway, and the urbanized boundary is now proceeding westward. Continued monitoring will determine how well the targets are being met, identify where implementation adjustments are necessary and guide retrofit and rehabilitation projects which will be incorporated into later stages of development design and planning.

4. Stormwater Management Review Guidelines

The watershed, subwatershed, and Stormwater management plans are developed in accordance with existing Authority, Provincial, and Municipal policies. There are numerous guidelines and manuals in place which guide Stormwater management, stream alterations, fisheries, and land use planning projects.

In particular, the Grand River Conservation Authority Stormwater Management Policy has been in effect since 1982. This document detailed the objectives of the Authority in 1982. These objectives, i.e.: watershed planning, flood control, water quality, groundwater recharge, natural channel design techniques, and public education, among others, are still current and applicable today.

The Provincial document entitled "Stormwater Management Practices Planning and Design Manual" (Ministry of Environment and Energy, June 1994) was prepared to provide a holistic approach to Stormwater management, beginning at the watershed and subwatershed level and extending to the subdivision and site plan level. This document provides technical guidance to the designer and the reviewer with respect to Best Management Practices (BMPs), such as wet ponds, wetlands, typical dry extended detention ponds, and infiltration facilities. The manual also describes a methodology (or erosion impulse) for assessing erosion impacts on receiving streams. This aspect of the manual is currently under review by a technical committee.

Recently, the City of Kitchener initiated a review of their Stormwater management guidelines. Representatives from all municipalities within the Regional Municipality of Waterloo in addition to staff from the City of Guelph and the Grand River Conservation Authority, were participants in this review. The result has been a design document for Stormwater management facilities which has been accepted, or is currently in the process of being accepted, by the member municipalities. The final document follows the design guidelines presented in the Ministry of Environment and Energy (1994) Planning and Design Manual and will provide a consistent storm water management approach among the various municipalities which is supported by the development industry.

5. Current Issues in the Laurel Watershed

In addition to the issues identified in the Laurel Creek Watershed Study, the following issues have also been raised, either due to information gaps in the original study or due to the results of new information from additional studies.


Wildlife habitat, species of wildlife observed, and the functions of watershed features with regards to wildlife were addressed by the Laurel Creek Watershed Study. However, since the completion of the watershed study, detailed investigations of wildlife issues and planning to sustain wildlife have not advanced at the same rate as the work undertaken on other resource issues. We have been involved in the planning activity for development, including stormwater management, sanitary servicing, community planning, monitoring, and the development of "buffer criteria." But, work is required on producing innovative designs of roads which cross wildlife corridors and the development sites adjacent to or backing onto these corridors. There is more that the stakeholders can do to sustain the wildlife within the watershed starting with research into which design approaches have worked well in North America in support of small mammals and birds.


We have been very actively studying and planning in the watershed to achieve the goal of environmentally sound development. Much of the actual development will occur several years down the road. In the interim there are measures which could be employed to minimize adverse impacts of current land uses such as agriculture and maintain the integrity of sensitive natural landscape features. We have observed the destruction of habitat and damage to trees on future park sites and wooded areas where tree saving will be undertaken during development. The interim stewardship of these sites supports a smooth transition from farm to urban community.

Agency representatives will be meeting soon to discuss an interim stewardship strategy and possibly prepare an educational brochure. In the meantime the stakeholders are encouraged to develop interim stewardship guidelines with emphasis on land owners and tenant farmers implementing agricultural Best Management Practices.


There are areas in the Laurel Creek Watershed where buffer strips for stream and wetland protection will be quite adequate but which may not be appropriate for wildlife. Through interim stewardship of the buffer strips, increased buffer quality could result through naturalization prior to development and that would possibly compensate for a lack of buffer quantity on some sites.

There are many sites in the watershed where landowners, individuals and community groups could carry out projects to enhance buffers prior to development taking place. Trees could be planted, temporary construction control fences could be erected, and plantations could be thinned to improve the buffering capacity of buffer strips and lands adjacent to trails or sites of future trails. The landowners are encouraged to work with the municipalities, agencies and other stakeholders to take advantage of opportunities to enhance buffers and potentially reduce buffer widths in exchange for buffer quality.


The Beaver Creek Wetlands/Woodlands/Wildlife Project is part of the Canada/Ontario Agriculture Green Plan. This program promotes the development and adoption of practices that benefit both agriculture and wildlife. The Beaver Creek project provides funds to landowners to improve wildlife habitat and reduce the impact of agriculture on the natural resources of the watershed.

There has been very little response to the existing financial incentives to improve farming practices and enhance wildlife habitat within the Beaver Creek sub-basin, a tributary of Laurel Creek. This is largely due to the number non-farm landowners within the sub-basin who are holding the lands for future development. These landowners often rent their land to farmers and often are not aware of the best management practices that should be implemented to reduce erosion and improve habitat. Consequently there is no investment in erosion control or stream buffers in these areas.

Despite the low response, the program has provided a great deal of information to landowners and some projects have been implemented. Several buffer strips and stream rehabilitation projects have been established. The Conservation Authority is planning to survey landowners in the watershed to determine their attitudes toward the program and reasons for not participating. This should also help to define some of the issues. Unfortunately this program is scheduled to terminate in March 1997.


One of the key recommendations of the Laurel Creek Watershed Study stated that a detailed monitoring plan should be one of the first tasks addressed by the Implementation Committee. Monitoring is required to assess the ongoing impact of human activities on the ecosystem and to determine the effectiveness of mitigation programs.

The Grand River Conservation Authority is actively involved with the City of Waterloo, the University of Waterloo, and the Regional Municipality of Waterloo, among others, in creating such a monitoring program. At this time this group is in the process of completing a draft report of the Watershed Monitoring Program. This team effort is being coordinated by the City of Waterloo.

6. Stream Management

Management of streams, such as Laurel Creek, involves a multi-disciplinary approach. The range of management tools available include traditionally used legislation (such as flood plain and wetland policies) to innovative tools such as interim land stewardship and natural channel design initiatives. In general the following tools are utilized, keeping in mind that the goals and objectives are clearly developed and outlined in the watershed or subwatershed study:


Flood plain management is historically the primary tool available to manage streams. The basic objective of this tool is to remove activity from flood plain, creating a setback from the channel and allowing the channel to naturally overtop its banks. This approach is fairly well known to the public, developers, consultants, and to review agencies and as a result, there is little objection to its implementation.


Buffer widths have been determined in the Watershed Study. Depending on the constraint level, the buffer widths are either 15 or 30 metros. In the Hanlon Creek Watershed Study located in the south end of Guelph, the buffers are significantly greater. As noted earlier, buffer widths could be reduced should buffer quality be improved.


In general, stormwater management policies require the attenuation of flows to predevelopment levels, to the capacity of the receiving stream, or to targets specified in the watershed/subwatershed plan. The design of stormwater management facilities is outlined in Ministry of the Environment and Energy 1994 Guidelines.


The critical construction phase of development can increase sediment loadings on streams considerably. As a result, stream habitat can be destroyed, reservoir capacity is reduced, stream aesthetics are reduced, and fish are harmfully impacted.

In addition, sediment concentrations may provide estimates of other pollutant loadings since many pollutants adhere to sediment particles. The sediment concentration target specified for the Laurel Creek watershed is 25 mg/L based on event mean concentrations and flow proportional sampling.


Where sections of stream have been identified within a study as requiring general rehabilitation, the preferred approach is to use natural channel design initiatives, bioengineering, and stream habitat improvements. The Provincial document entitled "Natural Channel Systems - An Approach to Management and Design" (Draft June 1994) provides the design methodology for rehabilitating a degraded stream. The objective in any stream rehabilitation project is to create a dynamically stable stream from a geomorphological perspective and self-sustaining and self-regulating system from a biological perspective.


The objective for groundwater protection is to maintain existing baseflows to the stream and wetland and maintain recharge to the regional aquifer through infiltration. The target specified in the Laurel Creek Watershed Study is to maintain existing conditions, based on an annual water balance assessment.


The ultimate goal of any watershed or subwatershed study is to provide a series of recommendations upon which municipalities can make land use planning decisions. Without the effective transfer of these recommendations into Official Plan policies and zoning by-laws, the watershed study has limited use and becomes an expired document. Therefore implementation of watershed recommendations within municipal planning documents is a critical component of any watershed/subwatershed study.


Interim land stewardship, as noted previously, is required where land has been reserved for development but which will not proceed for an extended time period. This type of stewardship is being implemented in various areas throughout the watershed. Within the City of Waterloo (in particular the Eastbridge District), discussions are ongoing with developers and consultants to establish interim land stewardship programs. The objective is to reduce agricultural impacts on downstream receiving systems through the use of vegetative buffers and best management agricultural practices.


Volunteers are key to an effective and efficient watershed study implementation program. Within the Laurel Creek watershed, the Citizens Committee is an active participant. Trout Unlimited has also been active in the past. With volunteer groups, the Grand River Conservation Authority provides technical expertise and helps to secure grants to cover material costs. Volunteers also actively participate in the monitoring program by assisting in spawning surveys, water quality assessments, and aquatic habitat assessments. Public education is frequently implemented through volunteer groups.

7. Conclusion

In conclusion there are several important items which are critical to achieving the objectives of the Laurel Creek Watershed Study. First, the Grand River Conservation Authority sees this document as the primary planning document for its purposes within the watershed and for setting the framework for any additional studies which may be required. Secondly, meeting the minimum targets as identified in the Study and subsequent Subwatershed Studies are instrumental in maintaining system health. Thirdly, monitoring of the watershed health will determine if the targets are satisfactory. Subwatershed and performance monitoring of Best Management Practices will determine if the targets are being met, if the carrying capacity is being exceeded, and if facilities are meeting the stated or assumed efficiencies. Lastly, monitoring will only be meaningful if appropriate agencies are committed to implementing necessary changes where identified through retrofit and rehabilitation projects.

Stream management is a multi-disciplinary approach and utilizes a variety of tools. These tools include flood plain management, vegetative buffers, runoff controls, sediment controls, rehabilitation of degraded stream sections, groundwater protection, land use planning, land stewardship, and volunteerism.

The Mission Statement of the Laurel Creek Watershed Study was "to achieve sustainable development which is aimed at maximizing benefits to the natural and human environments on a watershed basis." Utilizing stream management tools and implementing the Laurel Creek Watershed Study targets and monitoring programs will maintain, or perhaps even improve, the health of the watershed. The key to achieving sustainable development is the implementation of an ecosystem approach.


Ministry of Environment and Energy. June 1993. Subwatershed planning. Ministry of Environment and Energy, Toronto, Ontario

Grand River Conservation Authority. 1992. Current programs and activities of the grand river conservation authority 1991/1992. GRCA, Cambridge, Ontario.

Grand River Conservation Authority. 1993. Laurel creek watershed study. GRCA, Cambridge, Ontario.

Ministry of Natural Resources. June 1994. Natural channel systems: an approach to management and design. Ministry of natural Resources. Toronto, Ontario.

Riley, J.L. and P. Mohr. 1994. The natural heritage of southern Ontario’s settled landscapes: a review of conservation and restoration ecology for land-use and landscape planning. Ministry of Natural Resources, Southern Region. Aurora, Ontario.

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