Altona’s Wetlands: Following the Water

When you think of wetlands, do you think of marshes and ponds? Wetlands are so much more – there are forest wetlands, bogs, wet meadows, fen – lands with readily available surface water.

Canada holds 25% of the world’s wetlands. And so far, Ontario has lost 70% of it’s wetlands. Yet wetlands are crucial to ecosystems and wildlife. Local wetlands harbour rare and endangered species from our fragile Carolinian bio-zone.

Unfortunately Altona Forest tells sad tales of the misuse of naturally occurring water. This area had wet meadows, marshy areas, vernal streams, forest wetlands, and ponds. These were changed forever before we moved here. When my house was built. When these neighbourhoods came up. Balance is possible – a blend of environmental sensitivity with human needs, but this often costs more money and time and there are less profits to be made. The environment is often sacrificed for ‘progress’ and water is just something to be controlled and moved.

Petticoat Creek is sometimes just a gurgling twist of water, but it’s also a whole watershed. What is a watershed? I snipped this from Canadian Geographic: “A watershed is defined as an area of land where all the surface water drains into the same place, whether it’s a creek, a stream, a river or an ocean. Therefore, all precipitation, such as rain or snow, that falls on a watershed ends up flowing to the same place.” It doesn’t matter the lands’ topography – it doesn’t have to be a valley system or depression – it’s more about the collection and path of water. This water path creates and supports life along its routes – a synergistic system of land, water, plants and wildlife.

Petticoat Creek watershed is immediately adjacent to the Rouge River watershed. It flows through Rouge National Park. It begins on the southern edges of the Oak Ridges Moraine and travels through York, Markham, Toronto and Pickering. Perhaps that’s the watershed’s challenge – it falls under multiple jurisdictions and rules, varied by-laws, and a multitude of conflicting priorities. In its north, it’s now protected by Rouge National Park. In the middle it runs into difficulties of unrestrained development and it finally empties into Lake Ontario at the beautiful but urbanized Petticoat Creek Conservation Area.

None of this watershed is untouched and only 16% is forest, wetland or meadow. Here in the Altona Forest area, Altona Road was built literally on top of the stream. I was confused trying to find where the water went. I wandered the neighbourhood on the west side of the road to find it along the roadside and some backyards. Then again it went under the road at Strouds. If the stream is broken, what does that mean for wetlands that existed near its banks? For wildlife?

Follow my curiosity… and your own. Ask your own questions about where Petticoat Creek goes and why we built right on top of it by zooming in close on Google Earth. You won’t see the stream, but you can follow the green band of trees. Google Maps doesn’t even show the creek south of Finch Avenue… its depiction as a blue line disappears from the map.

Follow the wetlands in Altona Forest. If you walk the blue trail (north loop) you will find a little bridge near post 17. Water from the amphibian pond and the forest wetland trickles through and gathers to create this little brook that flows under the bridge. It’s a scenic spot on the trail – lush chartreuse leaves and trilliums in spring, verdant shade in summer, glorious oranges and reds in fall, and ice patterns of water in the winter. Stand for a moment on the bridge and look at where the water flows. Through the clearing you will see that it ends at a corner of Summer Park. Walk to that corner of Summer Park – it flows directly into a sewer.

The disappearing stream near post 17 ~ Image courtesy of Terry Nash

There is also a secret brook nearby – a torrent of water in storms and in the spring melts, but vanished in dry months, it’s called a spring or vernal stream (or ephemeral stream). They are the homes, nurseries and refuges of salamanders, frogs, toads, vital to insects, and drinking water to all forest wildlife. Unseen by everyone but a few neighbours, this stream is funneled to another sewer in a backyard on Summerpark Crescent.

The softly gurgling brook that meanders near post 21 shares the same fate –  it ends in a backyard sewer on Wildflower.

How many other brooks disappear like this beyond the reach of our eyes – on the adjacent streets?

A long forest tributary once ran south – now under the houses of the east side of Wildflower. And referencing maps of the area before development, I saw that there were three small ponds where Woodsmere Crescent now sits.

Altona north’s two ponds are not untouched. Lacey’s Pond was amended and drained to keep water out of the adjacent neighbourhood – so it’s a rainwater-collection system. Unfortunately, there is no more open water to support the wildlife sustained by a pond. Cattails have filled it to choking point and requests by the forest’s stewardship committee to clear some area of it are not being acted upon.

The amphibian pond in the north corner is affected by fertilizer run-off from the hydro-corridor’s tree nursery that drains water to the pond. This pond was created through hard work and dedication by community conservationists. While it’s not naturally occurring, it was created in natural wetlands and has drawn back some of the species of frogs, toads and dragonflies who were evicted by development and wetland destruction. Visit the pond in spring to hear a cacophony of green frogs, wood frogs, tree frogs, American toads, and watch for their tadpoles in the water.

In the small strip of land in ‘Altona Forest South’ you can see a vernal stream go through the valley – to a nearby curve of Petticoat Creek. The neighbourhood drains to the stormwater ponds off Autumn Crescent and Calvington. One stormwater pond overflows to a neaby flat area of forest that beavers dammed to create a pond. It’s great to know they are surviving here – but neighbours called to have the City remove them. From the end of the beaver pond, the water disappears under the raised railway line and into other developed areas.


Female red-winged blackbird sitting on a beaver-stump in Altona Forest’s south ponds

 Altona Forest held wet forest, marsh, and other wetlands as natural features of this surface-groundwater-rich watershed. Human intervention into the wetlands of this area have changed it forever. The forest was drained with insufficient planning when the neighbourhood was built. You’d think this was long ago, but most of the building has occurred in the past 2o years… with a new neighborhood being built at the corner of Finch Avenue and Altona Road this spring.

Wetlands are a sponge for storm events – Conservation Ontario indicates that 1 acre of wetland holds a million gallons of floodwater. Without wetlands, where does the water go? Water that rushes from your roof and driveway to sewers and directly into small local streams and tributaries acts like a huge toilet flush – and kills fragile creatures and their eggs and larvae, eroding banks, bringing street waste (salt, oil, toxic bacteria from dog waste) and making streams lifeless and unable to cope and retain their bio-integrity.

Now it’s your turn; explore Altona Forest and see where the water goes. Following the water gives perspective and you realize just how embattled local wetlands and Petticoat Creek are.


 Resources ~ Begin Your Reading Here


Altona’s Wetlands: Following the Water ~ © 2016 Natasha G



This entry was posted in Along the Trails, Invasive Species and Threats and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Altona’s Wetlands: Following the Water

  1. Ron Corkum says:

    Great blog article on the Altona Wetlands and the impact of human interaction. Thank you for referencing my blog for Ontario Nature.

    Ron Corkum

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