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Pipe Burst Causes Massive Gash in the Hamilton Escarpment

Blog posts reflect the views of their authors.
Affected area at the base of the escarpment
Affected area at the base of the escarpment

We are mid way up the escarpment. The red mud here is all churned up, track marks of heavy machines collect puddles, and the trail is lined with broken branches. We are just past where St Joseph's Drive ends, above Ferguson, on an old road that has been re-naturalizing for many years, following the tracks of the first vehicles to pass this way in a long time. Their destination is likely the same as ours -- just up ahead, a pipe burst after heavy rain. From the top of Ferguson, we looked past the new pump station towards an enormous gash in the hillside carved by escaping water last night [the morning of March 12]. We read about the burst and about flooded driveways in the Spectator, and, having spent a lot of time on these hills in the past, we decided to go visit it for ourselves.

Further, a wider area has been cleared, and the ground is mixed into an ankle-deep paste of eroding soil and rain water. The clearing is surrounded by piles of cut and broken trees draped in caution tape. Below,  we see the pump house, its green strips of sod forming a ridiculously out of place lawn above the retaining wall, where last year there was forest. The cut went mid-way into a stand of Trembling Aspens -- we see their fallen pale trunks grouped together, and their tall branches reaching up towards a canopy that no longer exists.

The gash in the hillside is fully five metres wide and two metres deep. We're standing on its lip, on a crust of black ashpalt mixed with knuckle-sized stones. Our eyes go again to the lawn, to the line where those cut strips of top soil imported from elsewhere meet the natural leaf litter that has been building up under this community of Maples, Aspens, Elms, and Ash for the last forty or so years. When the trees in an area are cut, rainfall moves more rapidly over the soil and so stays on the surface, becoming run-off rather than sinking down to join the slow flowing and constant water table.

The pipe seems to have burst on the uphill side of the wide clearing. The path of the water is marked by the stripped top soil and bare roots , and most dramatically by the gash worn away. The large majority of the downed or injured trees are outside of the path of the water.

The trees here stabilize the fragile lower slopes of the Escarpment system. Many of the trees at the top of Ferguson were cut last year to make way for this pump house and its lawn. And now, during probably the wettest week of the year, dozens more trees are cut, their roots dug up, and the soil pounded into mud. Between where we stand and the Claremont access, there are now only some shrubs, a lone Manitoba Maple, and a couple of White Cedars.

The street has been stained with eroded soil since the forest was cut last spring

What will this land look like by next year? The streets below the pump house development have been thick with runoff soil since construction began -- soil that was once part of the Escarpment. The more the Escarpment forests are fragmented, the more what is left is impacted by erosion and pollution pressures, and the less it is able to heal from the sort of random devastation that this pipe burst represents. What kind of world view does the presence of a lawn here represent? The grass is not even rooted, it is just a mat of sod. Aspen are fast growing trees that quickly stabilize disturbed sites, and yet they chose to lay sod  rather than plant anything. And when the inevitable flood comes along, they take it as an opporunity to cut the Aspen back further.

The central issue in the story of this pipe burst is not that some home owners were inconvenienced. It is that, literally in our own backyards, the ability of the remaining natural communities to survive and fulfil their many vital roles, including regulating a healthy water table, is being destroyed. Take some time tomorrow and head over to the South end of Ferguson and see for yourselves. What do you see?

To read about when we explored this area last spring, checkout Story of a Scar.


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