FARM 21: Huron Clean Water Project marks 15 years of projects
BY SHAWN LOUGHLIN
While the Huron Clean Water Project celebrated 15 years of success in 2020, in many ways it represents just the latest chapter in the long history of stewardship in Huron County.
Doug Hocking, water quality specialist with the Maitland Valley Conservation Authority, presented an annual report on the project to Huron County Council last month, heralding its successes and using the opportunity to reflect on all that has been accomplished over the last 15 years.
In an interview with The Citizen, however, Hocking said the Huron Clean Water Project is the third program to tackle water quality in not just Huron County, but throughout the Ausable Bayfield and Maitland Valley watersheds.
Work to improve the water quality in Huron County began in the early 1990s, Hocking said, with the Clean Up Rural Beaches program. He was with the Ausable Bayfield Conservation Authority then and the program took aim at agricultural drains and other factors that were resulting in contaminated water along the shores of Lake Huron.
Designed to be a 10-year program, it would only reach the four-and-a-half-year mark, Hocking said, as it was an early “casualty” of then-Premier Mike Harris’ “Common Sense Revolution” and its funding was cut.
However, when the Walkerton tragedy struck in 2000 and people were sickened due to contaminated drinking water, a similar program was created. The Healthy Futures program brought together many of the same players from the Clean Up Rural Beaches program, but with more of a focus on wells and drinking water as a direct reaction to the Walkerton incident. The program was co-funded by the provincial government and Huron County.
When that program came to an end, however, the Huron County Council of the day made it clear that water quality was important to the region and two former councillors, former Ashfield-Colborne-Wawanosh Reeve Ben Van Diepenbeek and former Central Huron Reeve (the title has since been changed to mayor) Bert Dykstra, really championed the idea of a program to continue the work of improving water quality in Huron County.
Without Van Diepenbeek and Dykstra, Hocking said, the program likely wouldn’t have found its footing. However, in 2004 the Huron Clean Water Project launched and the first projects under the new umbrella were completed in 2005.
By design, the Huron Clean Water Project focused on local priorities with local decision-making at its heart. Funding is provided by the County of Huron, local agencies, the conservation authorities and landowners.
The project also includes a local project review committee. In 2020, Morris-Turnberry Mayor Jamie Heffer was the chair, while South Huron Deputy-Mayor Jim Dietrich represented Huron County Council, Jack Kroes represented the Christian Farmers’ Federation of Ontario and Duncan Jewell served as a citizen appointee to the committee.
In those early days, Hocking said, the budgets were supported by the local conservation authorities.
Reflecting back on 15 years of the Huron Clean Water Project, and its two predecessors, Hocking says there has really been a slow-and-steady approach to stewardship projects in the county, supported by the success of projects and word of mouth. Once a successful project has been completed, he said, a farmer is more likely to trust the program with another and soon enough, they’re undertaking a number of projects that will only serve to improve the water quality throughout the community.
Making the project – and water quality in Huron County itself – a priority, Hocking said, has gone a long way in establishing a mindset of stewardship in the community. In addition, because of the relatively small size of projects that go through the Huron Clean Water Project, it encourages farmers to improve their farms in “bite-sized chunks” that can be more digestible financially.
For the coming year, Huron County Council has increased its stake in the program, contributing an additional $50,000 to be used for projects.
In 2020, the committee reviewed 290 new project applications, approving 260 with the project’s $400,000 allocation from Huron County. That money turned into an estimated value of nearly $1.9 million for approved projects in 2020.
Just under 245 of the 260 approved projects were completed in 2020, with 29 per cent of the grants going towards tree-planting projects. Twenty per cent was allocated to erosion control projects, while 15 per cent was for cover crops and nine per cent was for well projects.
One of the real strengths of the project, Hocking said, is the guidance the project can provide when it comes to small woodlots on farms. There are fewer and fewer of them these days and that’s why they’re so important to the quality of the water running through the county’s streams.
That work, he said, can be proactive and help people do the right thing early in the process, which avoids messy enforcement issues down the road. No one likes those situations, Hocking said, and it’s much better for everyone if issues are nipped in the bud before they become real problems.
The real show-stopper, however, is when all of the projects from the last 15 years are evaluated.
Hocking, in his presentation to council, said that nearly 3,200 projects have been completed since the Huron Clean Water Project launched.
Over 860 tree-planting projects have been approved, in addition to the decommissioning of nearly 600 wells, the upgrading of over 400 wells, the planting of over 24,000 acres, over 215 kilometres of windbreaks being planted, nearly 275 erosion control projects being completed and just under 100 unused liquid manure storages being decommissioned. All of those projects result in over $13 million in reported project costs over the last 15 years.
As a resident of nearby Perth County who went to high school in Mitchell, Hocking said that working on the Huron Clean Water Project and its predecessors since the early 1990s has come with a tremendous sense of accomplishment and gratitude. He lives in the community too and having a hand in improving it and its water quality gives him great satisfaction.
Hocking relayed a story about his uncle, who was one of the last independent fertilizer sales people in the area. He would drive around the area, proudly showing off farms he had worked with over the years. Hocking says he’s now like that with farms and water projects, happily pointing them out with a sense of pride to anyone who will listen.
There are many other people who are responsible for the work being done by the project, Hocking said. There is, of course, his colleague Kate Monk, the stewardship, land and education manager with the Ausable Bayfield Conservation Authority and also Huron County Council. Without the ongoing support of council and councillors to champion the cause and fight for project funding every year, the last 15 years wouldn’t have been possible.