The outfall of the Wilson Brook Storm Sewer, located deep in an almost impenetrable part of the Charles Sauriol Conservation Reserve on Toronto's East Don River.

Why did we bury this creek?

Michael Cook

Around 1991, we buried an anonymous creek in a ravine on the edge of the East Don Valley. It is likely that nobody noticed, save for the contractors involved and the Metro Toronto or City of North York employees that staffed the adjacent Bermondsey Works Yard. Watershed activism was still in its infancy: the first report on 'Bringing Back the Don' was just being presented to Toronto and Metro Councils; David Crombie's Royal Commission on the Waterfront had just published an interim report on protecting Lake Ontario's upstream watersheds a year earlier. This was one of the most inaccessible portions of the Don Valley, and this was an obscure southeastern corner of North York, a municipality that in less than a half-century had become very good at burying inconvenient creeks.

The burial of this creek by North York or Metro was so obscure that, today, Toronto and Region Conservation Authority maps of the Don river system continue to depict the creek as an intact surface waterway, and it remains on habitat management lists.

Still, this was 1991, and we should have known better.

As crews buried a new, corrugated metal pipe in the ravine, it was the last step in the destruction of the functional stream ecology of Wilson Brook. The process had begun twenty years earlier when a 200-m section1 of the creek immediately upstream was buried to accomodate a parking lot for the brand-new Victoria Village Arena, degrading the possibilities of what was downstream. Even then, the creek had still flowed through the ravine lands beyond the arena, down into the Charles Sauriol conservation reserve where it entered the East Don River. It probably harboured redside dace, a large minnow that is now provincially and nationally endangered, and supported a variety of wetland conditions where springs and seeps in the steep ravine walls interacted with the flowing creek.

Today, there is only the stretch of the upland creek north of Eglinton Avenue, and the final outlet channel down the bottom of the ravine into the Don. That final channel is scoured by storm flows and ruined by a combined sewer overflow located next to the storm sewer outfall. What is left of the creek meanders through a woodland permanently scarred by the apathy of public works managers—the ones that have allowed litter and debris to fall, and serious erosion to occur, from the Bermondsey Yard into the ravine, and the ones who, engaged in snow dump planning, saw in the creek channel a piece of land that did not need to be bought.

For that appears to have been the objective of the 1991 burial. Channelling Wilson Brook underground allowed the creation of a graded 'meadow' area in the ravine that could be utilized through the works yard as a snow dump site, with a capacity to hold 2,500 truck loads2 of snow removed from major city streets and parking lots. By 2002, past use of the upper works yard property as a snow dump had been discontinued, and the remaining ravine dump had been designated as an emergency site. To my best knowledge, it continues to be so designated today. As an emergency site, the kinds of monitoring and mitigation measures recently applied to high profile 'primary' snow dumps like the one beneath the Bloor Viaduct are nowhere to be found at Bermondsey.

Since being restricted to an emergency role, the Bermondsey site has likely seen only rare use as a snow dump. With recent warmer winters, even primary sites like the Viaduct lands have only been used in something like one out of every 3-4 years; the City of Toronto has also been shifting to a more active snow disposal strategy reliant on portable melting stations. But in the absence of frequent snow storage in the Wilson Brook ravine, and through its proximity to the active works yard, the ravine has become an altogether different kind of dump site.

Hundreds of City of Toronto parks litter bins dumped in 2012 at the emergency snow dump site in the Wilson Brook ravine, adjacent to Bermondsey Yard.

With no gray piles of compacted snow clogging the site as they tediously melt into the summer months, City of Toronto Solid Waste Management has taken to using these reclaimed Wilson ravine lands as a covert storage and dump site for other materials. In May 2012, we found hundreds of apparently surplus parks litter bins piled in the filled ravine, along with some insidious-looking steel drums. Is this really what we buried the creek for?

We made a terrible habit in Toronto and the former Metro municipalities of locating the yards, dumps and infrastructure of our public works in what, ecologically, were the least appropriate landscapes for them. Some of this habit dates from longer-standing practices of disposing solid waste and excavated fill in every convenient lowland; practices begun in the 19th century in places like the Garrison Creek and the ravines north and west of High Park, and continued by Metro along the edges of the Don and Humber through the 1950s and early 1960s.

Wilson Brook, 1954. (Aerial Photograph from Ministry of Energy, Mines and Natural Resources series).

Much of this tendency was rehabilitated in the latter part of the 1950s by post-Hurricane Hazel floodplain planning, which required the management (rather than filling) of valleys to protect downstream urban sites from inundation. After Metro Toronto and the MTRCA expropriated flood plains across the city to prevent future Hazel-like catastrophes, planners and managers found themselves bequeathed with a massive network of un- and under-developed valley lands.

While superficially the subject of an open space and parks system planning regime, these creek and river systems were mostly and very rapidly developed as a broad armature for the deployment of sewers and other works infrastructure from waterfront plants north across the expanding sprawl. This was a time when suburban growth was rapidly destabilizing spatial, economic and environmental relationships throughout the Toronto metropolitan area. Metro government responded by throwing much of its weight into rationalizing and 'fixing' the inefficiencies of the suburban municipalities through network planning and nodal investments, and newly appropriated or consolidated ravines and valley lands have been underrecognized as the crucial resource for the success of this infrastructure program.

Waterways became the favoured pathways for new suburban sanitary trunk sewers and for highways and public transportation planning, and even as it became unacceptable to bury waste in and alongside these river systems, they remained the favoured resource of emergency waste disposal planning. To this day, Toronto's valleys and ravines contain the bulk of the temporary garbage-storage locations during municipal strikes, and it is only recently that environmental concerns have restricted their use during bad snow years.

Still, again, it was 1991, and the Bermondsey dump was so important to the efficient disposal of the city's snows that just a decade later that site would be demoted to an 'emergency' role. Why was the construction so urgent that we buried this creek for a site that, twenty years later, would hold not snow, but a pile of rusting litter bins? It is a question that I still cannot answer.3

  1. 1. Most of this early section of culvert, installed c. 1971, was itself replaced in 2001 with new concrete pipe. That original culvert, like the extension built in 1991, was probably corrugated metal, and the floor had likely eroded away, necessitating its replacement.
  2. 2. MacViro. Final Report on Snow Disposal Feasibility Study. May 2002. City of Toronto.
  3. 3. In preparing this article, I am grateful to have received knowledge and advice from John Wilson and Helen Mills. The core question, however, remains unanswered.
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Michael Cook is available to speak to your organization about infrastructure history, lost creeks, current conditions, and opportunities for change in our management of and communication about urban watersheds, and to work with teams proposing or implementing such change. Get in touch.