Submitted by Robyn Gillam

The little Mallard duck was picking her way through dried out mud and roots along the shore of the Bayfront on her orange webbed feet. Although her lovely brown and black plumage was offset by the purplish-blue streak under each wing, she looked worried.

Mallards are dabblers who feed on plants in the water and stuff on the bottom, but there was no bottom. The water had dropped, leaving only dried plants and hardened roots protruding from the mud. “What’s wrong?” cried the little duck. She turned to the drake who had been following her around as part of their Winter courtship, but he was too busy admiring the reflection of his magnificently fluorescent green head in the inlet to notice. Looking up absently, he muttered “Hey babe, don’t worry –it’ll all work out.”

On New Year’s Day, I go for a long walk, admiring the scenery and looking forward to future prospects. This time I chose the Bayfront Trail to enjoy the view across the harbour and Cootes Paradise, but what I saw disturbed rather than calmed me. Last Summer there were luxuriant reeds growing out of the water near the boat ramp, where the swans had built their nests and raised their young. Now there was only a patch of dead straw protruding from the mud as the birds paddled around in the stagnant, shallow water nearby. In early Summer, the water has lapped the shoreline, but now stopped well below the bottom of the retaining wall. Further along the trail, evidence was even more dramatic. In 2017, record high lake levels completely submerged the mid section of the trail, so it had to be reinforced with rock and concrete fill, resulting in of trees and other vegetation. Now this fill, once mostly under water, stood stranded, separated from the bay by over a metre of dry sand and gravel. On an unseasonably warm but cloudy day, the prospect seemed desolate, even bleak. The water levels in Cootes looked a bit higher, but it hadn’t been like that recently. I shouldn’t have been surprised. By the end of the summer, all I could see of the Credit River from the Go train was a muddy stream trickling past a drying clump of reeds.

The year of 2022 saw the least precipitation for parts of the Lake Ontario region since 1966. In August, the Royal Botanical Gardens predicted that half of the Cootes marsh would dry up in the fall. By October, Credit River Conservation had to declare Level 2 low water conditions, indicating a potentially serious problem and water restrictions for non-essential use. In September, the International Lake Ontario – St. Lawrence River Board had already taken mitigation measures to safeguard municipal water supplies and shipping and there were extra shipping and handling charges for cargo in the port of Montreal. Of course, heavy snowstorms in December and subsequent melting have brought everything back to near normal– or have they?

The Great Lakes Basin has always experienced cycles of high and low rainfall, but beginning about ten years ago, these predictable patterns have been replaced by erratic and extreme shifts that are very difficult to predict. Most climatologists agree that a major factor is climate change that has upset existing weather patterns. While communities along the Great Lakes have agreed to work on infrastructure and conversation to mitigate this situation, the impact of this situation on wetlands and waterside environments is still serious. Dry conditions can help marshes to regenerate, but extended drought can raise levels of pollutants and acidity, creating a potentially toxic environment for their many forms of life.

We know what is wrong, but what can we do about it?

Learn more about this issue online at pages for the Royal Botanical Gardens, Credit River Conservation, the International Lake Ontario – St. Lawrence River Board and The Narwahl (July 2022).