Under The Boardwalk: digging into comfortable myths — Dec 2010

Beech Leaves

Kitchener-Waterloo is a rapidly growing double city on the banks of the Grand River. After biking from downtown kitchener, we’re stopped to catch our breath at the intersection of Erb St W and Ira Needles Blvd in the city’s west end. With wide eyes, we take in the landscape of a newly developing shopping centre and its sprawling parking lots— all in the place of the abandoned farmers fields and healing meadows here just last spring. It is being built by Voisin Developments Ltd, responsible for another twelve similar malls across the province.

The centre will be called The Boardwalk, a name that is grimly appropriate, considering that it is built on top of what was recently part of a wetland. Friends who have brought us out here for a walk in the adjacent woods are stunned to see the fast transformation of the earth as far as the eye can see. They question the continued development of this land. This mall and the surrounding neighbourhoods of houses are built on an unstable moraine system, and many of the new houses are sinking, their basements chronically flooded.

We cross the parking lots to the mall’s South end, where at least twenty heavy machines are scattered over the more than one million square foot area newly flattened. The land here is not yet paved, but has been graded, with the topsoil scraped away and stacked up in a huge pile near the back of the site. A patch of grasses and wildflowers have precariously sprouted from the top of the mound of precious soil. Some of the machines are working now to move dirt from the pile into large concrete flower beds around the parking lot.

Nearby, a rectangular, sod-lined pond has been created in an attempt to divert the meadow’s waterflow and deal with the flooding that comes with covering the land in pavement. A shallow, stagnant pool is forming. Water that was once enriching and valuable to this land is treated as waste, a potential hazard to be managed. We wonder how the watershed in the lands surrounding this is responding to these changes.

As we explore, we get a clearer picture of how the story of this sort of suburbs-n-malls model of development goes. All land is interchangeable, it says. Whatever the local features of the ecosystem, they are to be destroyed and the land standardized using grading and fill to create that prefabricated product we see emerging in countless city suburbs these days.

One friend tells us of spending time in this meadow earlier this year. There used to be lots of birds here. We see many goose droppings and tracks on the dry flat earth. Geese who have been stopping in these grassy meadows for generations, will this year find a parking lot instead. This South end of the mall will be home to a Wal-Mart, and as we walk away from the machines, we see the barren hills of the city dump close by – it seems appropriate that those two things be together.

Around the perimeter of the construction site are sediment barriers that are intended to prevent runoff from entering the intact wetlands beyond. But the barrier is covered in a dried layer of sediment up to the top, suggesting that it has overflowed recently. We eagerly step beyond it too, continuing South towards the marshy lands, glad for a hint of what this whole area once was.

A little slice of serenity, the narrow marsh holds a slow meandering stream between lush banks of cattails. Cattails slow the waterflow, filter sediment and take up toxins. Clearly, most of this area was part of a wetland system in the past – we’re in the headwaters of the Grand River afterall – but now, this is one of the few spaces where storm water can naturally drain and filter. This wetland is overburdened and overflowing, all flooded and silty. It’s doubtful if it could sustain the load even without this new mall coming in. We sit quietly among the drying fall grasses and watch as a blue heron, flying low, closely follows this healthy strip around the mall and the landfill.

Going a little further though, we find a sign indicating that the marsh has been designated as the site of an expansion of the dump.

And so the story of these developments continues. Not only is all land interchangeable, but it has no value at all until it is put to some use for humans. This strip of marsh is doing work that is far more important than creating crappy jobs at the mall or hiding the consequences of our actions from sight at the dump. But as it is now, this culture considers it to be without value.

In 2002, during municipal government talks about future developments in KW, some worries arose about water quality in the twin cities. Strange, considering that these cities are situated in an area with an abundance of fresh groundwater. In response to those concerns, they floated the idea of a pipeline to Lake Erie. Presented as a contingency plan, these types of solutions are in fact an acknowledgment that this watershed is going to be destroyed. It tells us that the city’s elite intend for these cities to grow to the point that they will not have clean water locally.

And so the story grows further. Not only does the land have no value until we use it, but we are not dependent on any of the natural systems here. No need to worry, once this watershed is poisoned and destroyed, we will simply find some kind of technological solution to the resulting problems. But the pipeline plan is not certain, it was just pacifying words. There are many logistical hurdles to its creation, not to mention that the water in Lake Erie is a finite resource that is already heavily burdened. But development around KW continues to destroy the watershed as if there already exists an alternative source of drinkable water.

We cut North up a dirt road, where the ditches are flooded and grow thick with green algae blooms. We soon come to a patch of forest that’s crossed by some well-used trails. Our friends tell us that it was formerly owned by Ontario Hydro, but that it was recently bought by a local cycling club and turned into mountain biking trails.

The forest is boggy and dominated by Beech trees. We know Beech well from our adventures in Cootes Paradise and the Dundas Valley, but its presence here is unusual. We usually encounter it as a secondary species, growing in Sugar Maple or Oak dominated forests. As well, we’ve never seen Beech growing on boggy soil like this – they like to keep their feet dry! One of our friends informs us that all the development around here has happened in the last ten years – before that, it was all farms, marsh, and forest. It’s likely that these changes to the water system have turned this area into a bog quite recently. There are also many beautiful patches of moss and exciting mushrooms. On the forest’s perimeters, we encounter older stands of Red Oak, Black Cherry and White Pine. It’s almost surprising to find such signs of health and diversity just beyond the sprawling construction and dumpsite.

On the South edge of the forest, where it becomes a field, we notice an old apple orchard. Young Hawthorns mingle with the tidy rows of abandoned apple trees as the forest encroaches. We find some rusty equipment that invokes the past use of DDT here – how does that history affect the water now? Further east, the forest’s edge is a small plantation of White Spruce, a longterm investment planted by the farmer who used to work this land. But the land around here is no longer farmed, because of toxic runoff from the landfill.

And all of this water from the moraine enters into a series of creeks and streams that pour down to join the Grand River. All of this silt and debris, all of this pollution, is being dumped into the Grand. While Pondering the strange and delicate shells of dried Wild Cucumber vines, we pause to consider what we have seen.

Our discussion brings us to realize that it is impossible for us to think about the Grand River without thinking about the Six Nations of the Grand River. All of the land within six miles on either side of the Grand is part of the Haldimand Tract, and belongs to Six Nations by treaty law. This includes most of Kitchener-Waterloo. We reflect on how all the negative effects of these developments will now flow downstream to (what remains of) their land. This is in spite of all the treaties promising consultation and the guarantee of hunting and fishing rights, particularly the Nanfan Treaty, which has been upheld by Canadian courts.

People in KW have their comfortable myth of an imaginary pipeline for when their water is too polluted. But Six Nations draws their water directly from the Grand, and even their new water treatment plant is already overworked. The Two Row Wampum is a treaty that describes First Nations and settler communities as being on parallel paths that do not cross, each community existing without interfering with the other. It is our responsibility as settlers to resist the unhealthy and destructive interference with Six Nations sovereignty that these developments in Kitchener’s west end and others like them represent.



A system of converging water systems collecting rain and surface waters to form streams which join rivers or lakes or oceans! Watersheds are the keystones of health for all life existing in an area.


As you likely know, wetlands are lands that are wet, either all or some of the time. There are many different types of wetlands, including bogs, swamps and marshes. Wetlands are natural water purification systems. Of all of Southern Ontario, the Kitchener area has lost the least, percentage-wise, of wetlands at a 37% loss of habitat. Compare this with London at 97% and Hamilton 82% losses, and an overall estimate of 80-90% total loss of wetland habitat in Southern Ontario. We start to see the importance of protecting these remaining pieces…


Marshes are defined as wetlands frequently or perpetually covered with water. They are characterized by emerging vegetation, like cattails. Marshes moderate stream flow, an important function during periods of drought. The presence of marshes in a watershed also helps to reduce damage caused by floods by slowing and storing flood water. As water passes slowly through a marsh area, sediment and pollutants settle to the floor of the marsh. Marsh vegetation also collect excess nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorous. This wetland type is very important to preserving the quality of all waters.


Formed by glaciers pushing mixed types of rock and sediment around. There are many types of moraines. The Waterloo moraine is made up of sand and gravel, and contains the Waterloo Moraine Aquifer– the source of all drinking water for the surrounding cities. The moraine landscape is constantly changing, as shown by the many dips and hills here. It’s perfect for mountain biking, but it underlines the ridiculousness of building those sinking homes. And they must have used a huge amount of gravel fill before beginning construction, gravel that was likely extracted from the quarries just to the East, near Guelph. Some of those quarries have made headlines in recent years for breaching the aquifer. This means that tons of pollutants and debris were able to enter the groundwater, which is part of the same watershed being impacted again by the developments here.

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