The Toronto and Region Conservation Authority (TRCA) has announced its intention to move forward with a project aimed at establishing green spaces along Lake Ontario’s shoreline.
The shoreline in question stretches 11 kilometers from Bluffer’s Beach to the mouth of Highland creek. The Scarborough shoreline is one of Lake Ontario’s treasures. Nowhere else in Toronto is such a large area of coastal habitat endowed with such biological and geological diversity, and scientifically recognized natural features.
The Scarborough Bluffs formed over many thousands of years during the Wisconsin Glacial Episode, which began around 75,000 years ago. Its walls reach a maximum height of approximately 250 feet, and contain an almost complete record of the last glacial period. The Bluffs are also the natural migratory pathway for many rare bird species.
Of the shoreline itself, the City of Toronto’s Official Plan designates it as, “a natural heritage system” (an area where protecting, restoring and enhancing the natural features and functions should have high priority).
Why is this project being proposed?
The TRCA’s Scarborough Waterfront Project is aimed at improving shoreline access, increasing connectivity and restoring habitat. These are important goals but Waterkeeper believes that water quality enhancement and watershed protection must be the project’s top priority.
Leonardo da Vinci said, “water is the driving force of all nature.” The water-sculpted landscape of the Bluffs illustrates: wildlife on both sides of the shoreline depends on clean water, as do recreational water users. You can’t preserve the Bluffs without protecting water quality.
Currently, Toronto’s 11 beaches account for just under 7 kilometers of Toronto’s 46 kilometre shoreline. From June to August each year, water quality at these sites is measured regularly, allowing recreational water users to make informed choices. In contrast, the remaining 39 kilometers of shoreline are largely ignored; there is no regular monitoring – all use is at your own risk. Scarborough’s 11 kilometer stretch of shoreline provides a historic opportunity to nearly triple the length of shoreline that is monitored for, and open for use by, Torontonians.
The project must be a cooperative effort.
The benefit of monitoring water quality is that it keeps the public informed and provides essential information that can guide restoration efforts. There are over 300 stormwater outfalls in Highland Creek and over 50 along the Rouge River. The proximity of both of these waterways to the Scarborough Waterfront means that river valley contamination will affect shoreline water quality. Protecting the Scarborough Waterfront will require protecting the watersheds that interact with it. This provides an opportunity for the Federal and Provincial government to work with the City of Toronto.
The Federal Government is already invested in restoring and protecting the Rouge watershed, while the Ontario government has highlighted the importance of protecting and restoring the Great Lakes. The Scarborough Waterfront Project can help further both these goals.
Restoring Highland Creek, safeguarding the Rouge and protecting the Scarborough Waterfront would be a major achievement. It would allow the Bluffs to become Toronto’s crown jewel and increase Toronto’s swimmable water by over 150%. It would also allow the largest city on the Great Lakes to set an example for other Great Lake communities to follow.
Understanding the Opportunity
To understand the importance of this project, imagine the Scarborough Bluffs in 20 years.
There are 11 kilometers of swimmable coastline. Of this, the 5 kilometer stretch of East Point remains largely untouched, constituting Toronto’s best preserved stretch of Lake Ontario. The water quality along the entire stretch is outstanding. Opportunities for recreational water use abound. Although the Bluffs are only a ribbon of habitat tracing the lake, this ribbon of green fans northwards into the Rouge and Highland watersheds.
The Rouge watershed is thriving, having been well protected for decades. The Highland watershed has been transformed. Green spaces have been expanded, floodplain habitat has been restored, and many of the diversions and sewer outfalls have been removed.
Great Lake communities see the Scarborough shoreline as a model for coastal protection and look to the restoration of Highland Creek to guide their own initiatives. It will require leaders who understand the project’s potential to achieve this vision.
And Toronto has had such leaders before.
In 1992, a Royal Commission, led by David Crombie, released a 500-page report on Toronto’s waterfront, titled Regeneration. The report called for an ecosystem level approach to planning that would help regenerate Toronto’s environment and economy.
An ecosystem approach to planning requires incorporating ecosystem health into the planning paradigm. It also requires an understanding of the interactions that shape a landscape. Ecosystems do not exist in isolation and they cannot be protected in isolation.
To succeed, the Scarborough Waterfront Project must draw inspiration from visionary thinkers like Mr. Crombie. This means making the project’s central goal to safeguard and showcase this 11 kilometer stretch of coastline. Particularly, the 5 kilometers of natural beach at East Point and the area around Bluffer’s Park.
As the Royal Commission report noted over two decades ago: “a healthy shoreline is a priceless asset… for Toronto: it offers drinkable water, recreation, rest and solace at the doorstep of millions,” yet protecting this shoreline “will require wisdom and fortitude.”