Asked if they knew what a watershed is or why it’s important to know, most people would shake their heads, bemused, and walk away, whispering under their breath: science nerd…
That’s what happened when a Toronto Star reporter visited the Richmond Hill area, where one of Toronto area’s main hydrological landmarks is located: the place where the watersheds of Toronto’s three major rivers meet: the Humber River, Rouge River and Don River. No one knew—or much cared—that these major rivers start in their neighbourhood.
Why would they know? The typical suburban area, near the intersection of busy Bathurst Street and Jefferson Sideroad, gives no indication of their importance. There are no signs. The place is just an ordinary outer suburb, with an enclave of two-storey houses on one side and farmland on the other.
Why would they care? Unless you’re an ecologist, limnologist or hydrologist—a science nerd—you won’t understand the significance of being able to name the watershed you live in.
There’s an ecologically and hydrologically “functioning landscape” in the porous moraine underfoot that “we take for granted and don’t even realize,” said Dena Lewis, senior manager of planning ecology at the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority (TRCA) to the Toronto Star (October 29, 2016). And we “don’t realize how the landscape is working for all of us.”
This is because none of us is an ecologist. And before you cite the science nerd thing, ecology is in reality a basic science of relationships. It isn’t rocket science; it’s mostly common sense applied to Nature, your habitat, and your home. In fact, that’s what ecology means: “the study of your home” (just as economy is “the management of your home”; eco means “home”).
We don’t learn ecology in school, or if we did—way back in elementary school—it was so basic, we’ve lost a sense for its significance in our busy daily lives as we scurry in and out of our watersheds from home to work to school to shop and back.
Knowing which watershed you inhabit is the key—and the starting point—to viewing your neighbourhood respectfully, responsibly and sustainably.
A watershed is an area of land that catches rain and snow, and drains or seeps into a marsh, stream, river, lake or groundwater. Also called a drainage basin, it is usually bounded by a ridge of land that separates ground and surface waters flowing to different rivers, basins or seas from that point.
Some municipalities are beginning to recognize the wisdom of using watersheds as natural political boundaries. With the help of multi-jurisdictional environmental authorities, NGOs, and visionary MLAs and city councilors, we are starting to see political and social infra-structures based on ecological criteria. Like watersheds.
So, why is it important to know your watershed?
Canadians have experienced drought conditions this past summer: gardens and yards drying up; less water to use; hotter days; raging forest fires. Many of us are bemoaning the effects of climate change and the rising global water shortage with thoughts of powerlessness—it’s a huge global phenomenon, after all. How can any of us affect climate?
This is a fallacy. We are not powerless.
The water crisis on our planet, and its accompanying water shortages, is ultimately a function of a water cycle crisis, something we are intimately involved in throughout our daily lives. The water cycle—the path by which water in its three forms cycles throughout the planet—proceeds through a finely balanced interaction of ecological and geological phenomena. Water wants to flow. And it flows through us like a river. As individuals, we drink, wash, sweat, and urinate water. We breathe in its vapour with every breath.
As a community, we impact the water cycle not just through diverting water from one place to another but—more importantly—through our activities that impact how that water cycles in the watersheds we live in. One reason why this is so important to understand is that it is also at this level that you and I can act.
We are capable of making a difference at the local level in our own watershed. We negatively impact the water cycling in our watershed several ways:
- Removing and diverting water from one watershed to elsewhere
- Disrupting or removing vegetation such as trees, shrubs and gardens
- Creating impermeable surfaces like rooftops, cement driveways, parking lots, etc.
- Polluting the surface or groundwater through littering, dumping, etc.
Our influence within our watershed can be as subtle as choosing to drink our own tap water over bottled water and as significant as choosing to plant a tree in our front yard.
Once you’ve identified the watershed you live in and find its name, you’ve made it your own. It’s now your watershed. Your home. You are now part of that entire ecosystem. And everyone who lives in it is your tribe. Find out more about it. It’s part of your identity: that river or stream, its groundwater, its lake or sea. Its water is your water. We are over 70% water and water is constantly cycling through us. Water is in the air and you’re breathing it in and out right now as you’re reading this.
What We Can All Do:
Some of the things you can do in your watershed include:
- Learn about the watershed you live in and inform others
- Plant trees in your own yard and elsewhere; encourage others to do the same and tell them why
- Plant rooftop gardens and help make other places “green”
- Make your own property more pervious by using paving stones, etc. and encourage others to do the same
- Don’t buy bottled water; drink water from your own watershed—your own tap. Ensure, by using it that you value it.
For more information on water, read Nina Munteanu’s Water Is… (Pixl Press)
Nina Munteanu is an ecologist, limnologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.