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Why the Oro Moraine must be saved

2022 12 17 hawke Oro Moraine smallI could easily fire off another tirade about the sad state of our environmental affairs in Ontario, lambasting the thick-headed Doug Ford Unprogressive Conservatives and his bevy of bobble-head MPPs, but have decided not to. Instead, I am going to try an educational approach, using this column to enlighten “our representatives” as to what a moraine is and the valuable functions of this geological wonder.

Herein is a short history of the ancient Oro Moraine. These rolling hills of Oro, as they were once called, have a fascinating history, both geologically and, in our case, socially and economically.

Lesson 1. What is a moraine?

A moraine is a geological feature created by a glacier; it is a deposition of sand, gravel, silt, and clay.

Way, way back before humans wandered around these here woods, the Wisconsin ice field moved southwards (two kilometres high and moving slowly) and it encountered a rocky ridge in the area we now call Muskoka. As the leading edge of the glacier ‘slammed into’ the ridge, large pieces were broken off and carried forward on the ice. Eventually these pieces fell into icy crevices and were further ground down to small particles as the ice pressure was immense.

When the ice age ended (an earlier global warming event) and the Wisconsin glacier melted away (10,000 to 12,000 years ago), the sand, gravel and silt was carried out of the ice by flowing water. The flowing water naturally separated and sorted these particles and left them in piles. That pile is now called the Oro Moraine. (The nearby Oak Ridges Moraine was created in the same manner.)

Lesson 2. Why are moraines so important?

As the remaining materials were being sorted into sand, gravel, silt, and clay, melt water was held within these layers. These layers, which are saturated with water, are now called aquifers; the clay layers above and below the sandy aquifers protect them from intrusion of modern contaminants.

Water does flow out of a moraine, usually from the near surface aquifers. It appears as cold water springs and cold water seepages around the outer edge of the moraine.

The Oro Moraine is the beginning place (headwaters) of seven watercourses: the Coldwater River, the Sturgeon River, the North River, and Matheson Creek -- all feeding Georgian Bay; and Hawkestone Creek, Bluffs Creek, and Allingham Swamp Wetland Complex, all flowing into Lake Simcoe.

Lesson 3. What unique life forms are found on a moraine?

As the emerging water is cold and clean, it supports wildlife such as brook trout that cannot live in warm or polluted waters. Each year rainbow trout and salmon return from the big lakes to come up these rivers to spawn.

The surface soil is deep and rich in nutrients; a variety of forests established themselves depending on their moisture requirements: from thick conifer swamps to immense hardwood forests.

Wildlife of all varieties used the moraine, sometimes as breeding areas, sometimes as a food supply area. Passenger pigeons by the millions ate the beech nuts and oak acorns; as the initial grasslands were replaced by woodlands, elk gave way to white-tailed deer.

Due to the vast size of the original moraine, many species of birds, animals and plants that require undisturbed solitude flourished here: wild ginseng, butternut trees, wood thrush, scarlet tanagers, and so many more.

Lesson 4. How do humans use a moraine?

Humans found their way here about 8,000 years ago. The Paleo had slowly made their way along the shores of the melting glacier, moving eastwards and southwards, establishing camps and then villages to utilize the abundant game, fish and plants.

This life-giving moraine, with its cold clean water simply bubbling out of the ground, attracted more and more of these original peoples who used these natural resources for many centuries.

But then, so goes the song, “then came the white man”. Beginning about 1830, this moraine was being mapped and divided up for ownership. Farms were established on the fertile soils, forests were utilized for lumber (mainly white pines in the 1880s). Sand and gravel pits were established to supply the construction needs of a fast-growing communities.

Then came even more people, of all colours and backgrounds. Mill towns were created; food supply chains established to Barrie, Orillia, Craighurst, Hillsdale, Bass Lake, Guthrie, Coulson, Jarrett, Crown Hill and others.

In 1929, my wife’s grandparents (Jimmy and Vic Williams) bought the 100 acres that is now known as the Cathedral Pines subdivision. But in 1929 it was just open blow-sand (the result of all the trees being cut down in the 1880s). To counter the blow sand, Jimmy and Vic were told to plant pine and spruce trees to hold the soil from erosion.

As they dug holes for the trees that now tower over the homes of Cathedral Pines, they found pottery shards and broken pipes of an Indigenous camp that was here 550 years previous. (These shards were inspected by university archeologists who determined that the decorative shape and style of the pots was from 1400 to 1500 A.D.)

At the base of the hill of Vic and Jimmy’s farm was a spring, with cold clear water that ran into the nearby Copeland Forest. Springs of fresh water were, and are, common along the base of the moraine. The Indigenous residents used this spring as their water source.

Back in the 1930s and 40s, Horseshoe Valley Road was called the Town Line (running between Oro and Medonte Townships) and each hill had a name for location purposes (e.g. Walker’s Hill, Coulson Hill). Spring Hill was a rutted roadway that wound down the side of the moraine (the roadway can still be seen via the metal gate on the side of the Horseshoe Valley Road). A pail and drinking cup awaited at the bottom for weary travellers and their horses to refresh prior to ascending the next valley slope.

In the 1960s came even more people, seeking escape from the urban cities. But not to farm the land. Now they came with the desire for fun, excitement and outdoor exercise. Ski hills were established on the sides of the moraine, then mountain bike trails, hiking trails, ATV trails and zip lines through the forest. And golf courses… don’t overlook the golf courses!

Water, essential water, tested and labelled as the “best in the world” could be had by just poking a bore hole into the moraine. No one knows, for sure, just how big the water reserves are within the Oro Moraine. In the 1970s, we were told that “there is a lot of water down there”. So, I guess we can relax and just keep using it?

Lesson 5. How is the moraine protected / regulated?

Water taking permits are awarded by the province to applicants who wish to use or even sell off this free water to others at a substantial profit. 

If all the existing permits just along the Horseshoe Valley Road were to pump at their permitted full capacity for a year, the volume of water removed would equal that of Lake Simcoe. Thankfully not all, or even any, of the permit holders have yet to pump at their licensed capacity. The cost of issuing a permit is reclaimed by the province at about .01 a litre.

Sand and gravel pits flourished as the growing communities had great need for these aggregates. The Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources stepped in and advised pit operators to prepare for the future, that fateful day when the pit is exhausted and in need of rehabilitation; a fund was set up so operators had to set aside .01 per extracted ton for future rehabilitation work.

Lesson 6. So, what’s the fuss?

As time passes and our human population grows, the moraine has been abused, and the resources used seemingly without regard of consequence:

- Thousands of new homes are sucking up water from the moraine’s aquifers, and groundwater table levels are dropping. As well, water percolation and seepage are disrupted by surface manipulations of soil.

- Sewage, lightly treated, is released back to the surface streams;

- Ski hill meltwater, contaminated with bacteria to create artificial snow is allowed to Imelt and drain unfettered over the edge of the moraine and into the wetlands that surround it;

- Golf courses pump millions of litres annually to let it soak into heavily fertilized turf and then back into the near-surface aquifers;

- Road salt, laneway oil drippings, industrial contaminants are swept over the hard asphalt surfaces and concentrated into drainage ditches.

- Wildlife populations, either displaced by housing subdivisions or interfered with by forest fragmentation, have diminished.

- Sand and gravel extraction pits get larger and larger, with applications requesting to go deeper, closer to the aquifers.

 Combined, these disturbed areas are having a huge negative impact on the natural functions of the Oro Moraine. And the removal of current protection regulations leaves the moraine vulnerable to complete destruction.

Lesson 7. What next?

Despite the removal of just about every level of environmental protection by the current Doug Ford Conservatives and his bobble-head minions, the Township must understand the importance and limitations of the natural attributes of the Oro Moraine. Careful, thoughtful, and educated decisions must precede any further approvals of development. It’s a process called sustainability, underscored by the notion of stewardship.

Back in May, I had been invited by the newly formed Save Oro Moraine group to provide the above information to local councillors and residents about the land beneath their feet. In the audience at that time were two Oro-Medonte councilors, and one has since moved along to become our current mayor. Dare I hope?

Okay folks, it’s recess time…

Dave’s Notebook -- This week the column looks at the formation and values of the geological formation of a moraine... as in Oro Moraine and Oak Ridges Moraine. Hopefully, our provincial government representatives will get this message and halt Bill 23.

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© 2022 David J. Hawke

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