Habitat Rehabilitation and Enhancement Projects in the Detroit River and Tributary Watersheds

Jim Hartman, Essex Region Conservation Authority (ERCA)


Since 1850, approximately 96% of Essex region's original wetland area and 95% of the original forest area have been lost as the result of forest clearing and wetland drainage for agriculture and urban development (Oldham 1983). Of the 1,722 km2 (665 mile2) in the Essex region, approximately 94% is used for agriculture or has been urbanized. ERCA is committed to the protection, enhancement and rehabilitation of fish and wildlife habitat. The following is a discussion of fish and wildlife habitat rehabilitation and enhancement projects implemented by ERCA in the Detroit River and tributary watersheds.

Little River Rehabilitation Project (Twin Oaks Business Park)

The Little River Rehabilitation Project is being implemented on the Little River at the former site of the Twin Oaks Golf Course in the City of Windsor. The Twin Oaks site is bordered by the E.C. Row Expressway to the north, the Lauzon Parkway to the west and CPR railway to the south.

The City of Windsor is servicing an 81 ha (200 acre) parcel of land (Twin Oaks Business Park) in the south-east portion of the city for future commercial and industrial development. The land is traversed by an 1,150 m (1,258 yds) section of Little River. The 1992 Little River Comprehensive Stream Study (LRCSS) identified the section of Little River at Twin Oaks as having degraded environmental quality. This degradation has been largely attributed to effects of channelization and construction of a river dam. These channel adjustments were made prior to the development of regulations that prevent such activities. Preliminary analysis of the natural features in the Little River and Turkey Creek subwatershed study (currently on-going) identified this section of the Little River as having high potential for renaturalization.

As part of the servicing requirements, a stormwater management plan has been developed for this portion of the watershed. Included in the plan are provisions for improving the natural habitat and water quality of this section of the river.

The following activities are being undertaken: restoration of the natural floodplain in a 1 km (0.62 mile) river section (Completed); restoration a 1 m (1.1 yd) deep low flow river section (Completed); restoration of 2,300 m (2,515 yds) of riparian habitat (in-stream and along banks) (Planned for fall 1998); installation of a stormwater quality system (Completed); construction of a trail linking habitat corridors and providing public access (Under construction); and monitoring of habitat and water quality improvements (In progress).

Restoration initiatives included the creation of a low flow channel as part of a 1 km (0.62 miles) natural stream channel design. A stormwater quality system was also constructed to ensure that the naturalized river section would not be degraded by runoff from the development complex.

Granular stone was placed on the bottom of the meandering stream channel to improve habitat for aquatic invertebrates and fish. Vortex weirs will be installed in the summer of 1998 to create riffle and pool sections to further enhance fish habitat. Ephemeral pools will be established within meandering flats of the river. These pools will intermittently become flooded during high water events and will retain water for extended periods providing habitat, particularly for amphibian reproduction during the spring season.

Bioengineering techniques, such as live staking, were used along the lower slopes of the floodplain to stabilize the banks and prevent erosion during high water periods. Sandbar willow cuttings (0.5 m (0.55 yd) in length) were staked into riverbanks and have begun to grow. Once mature, the stakes will prevent erosion and provide shading and riparian wildlife habitat. The entire floodplain has been planted with a cover crop of white clover, perennial rye, creeping red fescue, tall fescue, bird's foot trefoil, and timothy grass to stabilize the newly graded floodplain. During the summer of 1998, volunteers from local schools and the Little River Enhancement Group will be planting more than 3,000 shrubs, 900 bareroot trees, and 150 large trees. A trail is also being constructed to allow general public access to this newly restored natural area.

The project will contribute to achieving Detroit River RAP recommendations, delisting fish and wildlife habitat impaired beneficial uses in the Area of Concern and meeting Canada-Ontario Agreement Habitat Targets. The total cost is estimated at $1.02 million (Canadian).

The project involves numerous partners, including the City of Windsor, Little River Enhancement Group, Essex County Field Naturalists, University of Windsor's Great Lakes Institute for Environmental Research (GLIER), Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources (OMNR), Ontario Ministry of the Environment (OMOE), Lafontaine, Cowie, Buratto & Associates, Great Lakes 2000 Cleanup Fund.

Turkey Creek Improvements

The Turkey Creek Wetland is a provincially designated "Class 3" wetland, consisting of many significant features, including abundant species of wildlife and plants. The wetland has varying topography with a robust emergent-plant community, areas of wooded swamp, and open embayments surrounded by cattails. Historically, channelization in the wetland created spoil-banks, which reduced the amount of water flowing into the marsh, causing stagnation and reduced biological activity.

The Turkey Creek Improvements project was initiated in 1992 as a flood control project in the municipalities of La Salle and Windsor. The project evolved to include a number of environmental benefits. Sediment in the upper reaches of Turkey Creek was contaminated due to residential septic systems until 1987, when municipal sewer systems were installed. Polluted sediment was removed and fish habitat enhanced with numerous rock-riffles and deep pools. More than 1,600 native hardwood trees and shrubs were planted along the improved banks of Turkey Creek.

The final phase of the Turkey Creek improvements included excavation of old spoil banks in specific areas to allow for re-establishment of water flow into the marsh, restoring the natural biological and hydrological activities required for improved water quality as well as flood control. Fish and wildlife habitat were also improved through the creation of a pond and island network. This work was done under frozen conditions during the winter to minimize disturbance to vegetation and wildlife. Approximately $3.5 million (Canadian) were spent on improving more than 3.5 km (2.1 miles) of the Turkey Creek.

The improvements have partially restored what was once known as one of the most polluted watercourses in Ontario into a major amenity for the community and the region.

The project involved numerous partners including: OMNR, the Town of La Salle, City of Windsor, 200 landowners, Ministry of Transportation Ontario (MTO), MacLaren Engineers, LCBA, and Sherway Contracting.

Central Avenue Stormwater Facility

The Central Pond project is located at south-east corner of Central Avenue in Windsor on the Grand Marais Drain, a tributary of Turkey Creek. The 4 ha (10 acre) pond/wetland is designed to function as a regional storm water management facility. It will collect and detain storm water run-off from the upstream tributaries of the Upper Grand Marais Drain. By only allowing a nominal base flow of storm water to escape downstream during any storm event, the pond/wetland will relieve the flooding along the upstream reaches of the Upper Grand Marais Drain. The goals of this project are to:

  1. reduce flooding in the Upper Grand Marais Drain area by managing stormwater;
  2. improve stormwater quality leaving the wetland; and
  3. enhance the natural environment in the process by constructing a functioning wetland.

The project involved the construction of a stormwater retention pond/wetland, undertaken as part of the on-going Turkey Creek Channel improvement works to alleviate flooding in the Turkey Creek Watershed. As well, to enhance the natural environment in that area, several special design modifications have been implemented to allow the pond to function as a constructed wetland under normal operating conditions. These design modifications include:

  1. the routing of low flow waters through a serpentine wetland channel prior to discharge;
  2. the protection and use of existing on-site plant and tree species to speed up the post-construction naturalization process; and
  3. the planting of diverse wetland species to increase plant diversity.

The project facilitated land use changes in the Grand Marais Drainage area, including a 16 ha (40 acre) expansion at the nearby Chrysler Canada Plant. This is an excellent example of environmental and economic interests working together. Partners for the Central Avenue Pond project include Chrysler Canada, the City of Windsor, and ERCA. The total cost of implementing the Central Pond project was $600,000 (Canadian).

Canard River Improvements

The objectives of the Canard River Improvements project were to reduce sedimentation of the river and to improve flood control. As part of the project, fish habitat was improved, obstructions to fish migration were removed, and the low flow channel of the river was restored. Additional benefits included reconnection of the river to ephemeral pool areas and removal of garbage, debris, and artificial blockages.

The improvements were implemented over 37 km (23 miles) of the river at a cost of $250,000 (Canadian). The project provided an environmentally-sound alternative to typical, or engineered channel improvements for flood control.

Canard Marsh and Turkey Island Restoration and Enhancement Project

At the mouth of the Canard River in the Town of Amherstburg (formerly the Township of Anderdon), exists a large marsh complex, known as the Canard Marshes. This area has been identified as important fish and wildlife habitat, particularly for staging waterfowl. To the north of the Canard Marsh complex in the Detroit River is Turkey Island.

The purpose of the Canard Marsh and Turkey Island Habitat project is to protect and enhance wetland habitat in the Canard Marsh Complex by:

  1. Repairing the south marsh cell dike and the south finger dike (see the Ruwe Marsh Restoration Project section for more details). The south marsh cell requires an estimated 150 m (500 feet) of dike stabilization. The south finger dike requires an estimated 150 m (500 feet) of dike restoration and 150 m (500 feet) of dike stabilization. The restoration and stabilization work on the dikes will involve the protection of the dike face with rip-rap and native materials such as willows, dogwoods and rootwads. The repairs will restore and stabilize the dike and protect 60 ha (148 acres) of calm shallow water areas used by migratory birds and will create fish and wildlife habitat.
  2. Developing the Turkey Island Habitat Management Plan. This initiative will prioritize habitat rehabilitation and enhancement works for the two sites and develop detailed implementation plans.

The dike repair works will be completed in 1998. A second phase for this project is being proposed which would extend the south dike spit 30 m (33 yds) and would study the feasibility of a filtering calm water marsh cell which would extend from the south dike spit to the existing managed marsh cells.

The Canard Marsh/Turkey Island project will aid in delisting the impaired beneficial use of "loss of fish and wildlife habitat." In addition, the project will aid in meeting Canadian-Ontario Agreement Habitat Targets.

Project partners included the landowner, OMNR, Great Lakes 2000 Cleanup Fund and Ducks Unlimited Canada. The total cost of the project is $150,000 (Canadian).

Dean Construction Habitat Enhancement Project

The Dean Construction site is located on the shoreline of the Detroit River directly east of the Grassy Island in the Town of La Salle. Dean Construction presently operates its marine contracting operation at this shoreline site.

The Dean Construction site has degraded habitat and runoff leaves the property freely. Stands of emergent vegetation near the Dean site are considered part of the Detroit River Marshes Class 2 Provincially Significant Wetland. The objective of the project is to restore fish and wildlife habitat along the shoreline of the Detroit River.

Dean Construction has proposed work to improve shoreline habitat, which will complement the existing wetland. A stormwater management facility to polish runoff before it leaves the site is also proposed. None of the proposed work at the Dean site is required by regulation. However, Dean Construction, being an environmentally concerned marine construction company, would like to aid in naturalizing the Detroit River.

The project at the Dean site will entail construction of a 0.45 ha (1.1 acre) stormwater management pond and sediment forebay, and 550 m (601 yds) of shoreline naturalization and protection.

To date, the site has been cleared of dredged material and construction debris, and site grading has commenced. Shoreline fish habitat improvements have also begun. Shoreline improvements and final shoreline naturalization will be completed by fall 1998. The site will be monitored over the next three years to document habitat improvements and to evaluate the success of the naturalization project.

The improved habitat conditions created by this project will contribute towards delisting fish and wildlife habitat impaired beneficial uses in the Area of Concern, and towards meeting Canada-Ontario Agreement Habitat Targets.

Dean Construction Site project will demonstrate how government and public agencies can work with business in improving the health of the environment. Partners developed to implement the project include BTS Consulting Engineers, Great Lakes 2000 Cleanup Fund, ERCA, and Dean Construction Company Limited. The total cost of the project is estimated at $387,000 (Canadian).

The Canadian Salt Company (Windsor Salt) Habitat Enhancement Project

The Salt Company site is located north of Fighting Island along the Detroit River shoreline in the City of Windsor. The Canadian Salt Company (Windsor Salt) Habitat Enhancement Project Site has been historically identified as a high priority Detroit River RAP project for creating fish and wildlife habitat.

The rehabilitation project consists of building three off-shore islands. The islands comprise 0.45 ha (1.1 acre) of fish and wildlife habitat, and they will protect 350 m (383 yds) of riparian shoreline habitat and 2.8 ha (6.9 acre) of submergent vegetation from sedimentation and wind and wave action. An on-shore wetland will be constructed to complement the habitat created by the islands and to compensate for the surface area and volume of the Detroit River displaced due to the construction of the islands. The wetland will create 0.45 ha (1.1 acre) of wetland habitat and create and protect 290 m (317 yds) of shoreline.

The Canadian Salt Company is removing salt piles at the shore of the Detroit River, consisting over 152.4x106 tonnes (150,000 tons) of mine waste salt. Removal of the salt piles is necessary for the construction of the wetland component of the project.

Monitoring activities conducted prior to, during and following construction will demonstrate the effectiveness of wetland and riparian rehabilitation projects in protecting and creating fish and wildlife habitat and in protecting threatened habitat. Further, the project will contribute to achieving Detroit River RAP recommendations, delisting the impaired beneficial use of "loss of fish and wildlife habitat" and meeting Canada-Ontario Agreement Habitat Targets.

The project will demonstrate the ability of public interest and government agencies working together with industry to rehabilitate fish and wildlife habitat. The partners for the project include: The Canadian Salt Company Limited, Dean Construction Company, GLIER, OMNR, OMOE, and Scouts Canada (Windsor Chapter). The total cost of the project is estimated at $500,000 (Canadian).

Detroit River Rural Nonpoint Source Remediation Program

The Rural Nonpoint Source Remediation Program addresses pollution run-off problems in the Canard River, Little River and Turkey Creek watersheds in the Detroit River Area of Concern. Intensive cash cropping, combined with a high percentage of open municipal drains increases the potential for pollution in run-off from nonpoint sources to the Detroit River. The objective of the project is to reduce nonpoint source pollution resulting in contamination of the Detroit River.

ERCA completed the second phase of this four year project in 1997-1998.

A landowner participation program has been set up in these watersheds to encourage farmers to:

  1. change to no-till corn production;
  2. plant buffer strips and trees along watercourses;
  3. install soil erosion protection structures; and,
  4. upgrade faulty septic systems to improve water quality and wildlife habitat.

A monitoring program has been set up to quantify progress towards achieving water quality targets (delisting impaired beneficial uses). This consists of regularly sampling a limited number of long-term data sites (index stations) as well as using a survey approach based on subwatershed characteristics.

Monitoring stations have been selected and baseline conditions established. The water sampling program allows ERCA to assess annual sediment and nutrient loadings. Pesticide monitoring will be added after surveys have been completed to determine which pesticides are of concern. Biological communities are also being monitored (amphibian surveys, bird counts, benthic collections) to quantify change and stress in these communities. Soil erosion models are also being used to estimate reductions in soil loss and sediment loading as a result of projects implemented. Data from individual projects will be used to run these models.

The project addresses several recommendations of the Detroit River RAP. Enhanced water and habitat quality resulting from remediation will contribute towards delisting impaired beneficial uses of degradation of benthos, beach closings, and loss of fish and wildlife habitat. The project also aids in meeting Canadian and Ontario Agreement (COA) targets with regard to water quality and habitat rehabilitation.

Partners for the project are numerous and include OMOE, Essex County Stewardship Network, Essex Soil and Crop Improvement Association, OMNR, Essex County Federation of Agriculture, Essex Conservation Club, Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, GLIER, Environment Canada, and Great Lakes 2000 Cleanup Fund. Participating landowners contribute at least two thirds of the cost of each project.

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