The Scarborough Waterfront Project (“SWP”) is a proposal to build an 11-km shoreline pathway along the stretch of Bluffs lining Lake Ontario. This trail is meant to provide locals and visitors alike with a continuous shoreline trail from Bluffer’s Park to East Point Park along the historic Bluffs.
Toronto and Region Conservation Authority (TRCA) initiated the study under the Ontario Environmental Assessment Act in 2015. The project is currently in the first phase of the Environmental Assessment (EA) process. If you have something to say about the SWP, the deadline for preliminary comments is today, July 12, 2016.
Read more on this project here.
The TRCA’s stated vision is to create a system of greenspaces along the shoreline that respects and protects the Bluffs, enhances the terrestrial and aquatic habitat, and provides safe and enjoyable waterfront experiences.
Because this is the first phase of the assessment process, Waterkeeper’s comments are focused on the overarching purpose and direction of the project.
1. The Scarborough Bluffs are natural treasures
The Bluffs on Lake Ontario are iconic geological features. Formed over 12,000 years ago, these giant glacial deposits stretch over 15 kilometres of shoreline in Toronto’s east end. They dominate the shoreline and provide us with unique high-quality exposure of Pleistocene geology. 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 Bluffs that we know are eroding, partially due to weather and partially due to land use and development in the area. Waterkeeper recognizes that intervention may be required to protect the Bluffs and offers this guiding principle:
Any project proposed for the Bluffs region should, first and foremost, protect and celebrate the ecological integrity of the bluffs.
2. The Scarborough Waterfront Project is a once-in-a-generation opportunity - Think Hopewell Rocks
While the rocks remain, they are flagship destinations for tourists and residents alike. Visitors experience the wondrous and evanescent sight of these rocks from the ocean floor. They also have ample opportunity to learn about water and land with educational programs, activities, and informative park signage.
Officials in New Brunswick have done a wonderful job using the beauty of Hopewell Rocks to promote tourism, regional pride, and improve residents’ knowledge of their local environment.
Given the need for water literacy in Toronto, Waterkeeper sees a once-in-a-generation opportunity to protect the Bluffs and promote environmental education and ecotourism at the same time.
3. We support improved access, but only when that means celebrating and respecting the integrity of the Bluffs
Population growth combined with growing interest in waterfront activities means that more people are going to try to visit the Bluffs. In the last decade, the number of Ontarians visiting the water nearly doubled. Defining where and how people can access the Bluffs and the shoreline below is the key question for the SWP design.
By improving access to the Bluffs, we can make it easier and safer for people to learn about, enjoy, and appreciate the area’s unique natural features. Of the 9 separate parks currently dotting the Bluffs escarpment, only one has public access to the lake. As a result, people climb down the Bluffs wherever they can, becoming trapped or injured and harming the Bluffs in the process.
To highlight the natural value of the region, we envision a “Bluffs Nature Park” – a park featuring improved access to clean water, educational opportunities, and sustainable development and use. If development undermines the ecological integrity of the Bluffs, then it will also undermine the very reason people love the area so much.
4. Improve and safeguard water quality
More people coming to the shore means more people will be using the lake. Swimmers, paddlers, surfers, and others won’t stop at the trail edge. When they get to this beautiful nature park, the water that greets them needs to be clean.
While there are no official city beaches in this stretch of waterfront, Waterkeeper knows that people use the beach to access the lake. Recreational water quality is not regularly tested or communicated to the public. This should change, for two reasons.
First, when the waterfront is made more accessible and more attractive, more people will start using the lake. The plan should account for increased recreational water use now, and ensure that development activities take advantage of this opportunity to improve or protect water quality.
Second, certain project designs could actually lead to water quality problems, for example by interfering with natural water flows, creating stagnant areas, etc. Good water quality must be an important project goal, to protect the health of future park users and to ensure that the project remains worthwhile. It would be a shame to invest in this project without prioritizing water quality, only to discover in a few years’ time that water along the most beautiful stretch of natural shoreline in the city has been irreparably compromised.
Improved water quality is not currently an objective or even a criteria of the SWP. Instead, the current SWP objective is Protect and enhance terrestrial and aquatic natural features and linkages and its one water quality-related criterion is the following: “Ability to contribute to improved water quality following objective” (SWP, 2016). But we need more than just the ability to contribute; we need improved water quality to be the goal.
In order to support this objective, Waterkeeper recommends that extensive water quality sampling along the proposed area of shoreline be performed to establish baseline data. Without baseline water quality data, it will be difficult for the EA process to function properly. Baseline data will allow for a better understanding of the potential impacts of the proposed alterations. Post-project monitoring should continue for at least two years as well, to understand the impact of the project on water quality.
Waterkeeper also notes that the proposal for the East Segment has been controversial. There are concerns that the project work here will harm, rather than protect, the integrity of the Bluffs and the shoreline below. These concerns are valid. As stated by the TRCA in 2012, “further hardening should be restricted to areas where it is absolutely necessary for erosion protection. Natural shoreline conditions and beach habitats should be maintained, for example, across much of the eastern part of the study area (e.g. East Point Park and vicinity).” The best way Waterkeeper knows to move forward is the following:
Ensure that the natural integrity of the Bluffs is respected and maintained;
Understand that TRCA is creating a type of nature park, not simply a path or trail, and that the character of this “park” needs to be every bit as inspiring and valuable as the Bluffs themselves;
Take advantage of this opportunity to educate people about the magic of the Bluffs region and this stretch of Lake Ontario;
Ensure that water quality is protected or improved, because people are going to go in the lake and they are going to need the water to be clean.
If those principles are followed, the final project design will be fantastic.
Waterkeeper believes that smart planning in Toronto along Lake Ontario considers water quality and access to water. These two considerations are key to boosting prosperity, mitigating negative environmental implications, and increasing climate resilience. To protect our city, we must connect with our water and this means that projects such as the SWP must support quality access to quality water in Lake Ontario.
Think water quality; think recreational water use; think Bluffs Nature Park.