Field trip to Burlington and a climb up Mt. Nemo with Isabelle Harmer

By Joanna Bull

MT. NEMO, BURLINGTON, ON., May 29, 2011 – It is around ten o’clock Sunday morning when we pull off the highway in Burlington and head north. The Niagara Escarpment looms ahead of us on Guelph Line, an angular brow reaching up to a blue sky. By the time we turn up the Harmers’ tree-lined drive, Allie Kosela and I know we aren’t in the city anymore.

Already in her rain boots and coat, Isabelle Harmer welcomes us with instructions to gear up. Boots on, binoculars ready, and cameras charged, we follow Isabelle past the barn and along the path to the back fields.

Young seedlings the Harmers planted last year along a small creek are marked with orange tape. In a few years, they will look like the tall trees that border the far end of the field, planted when Isabelle and Al first bought this property 41 years ago. The tiny creek they stand watch over is part of the Mount Nemo Tributary of Grindstone Creek, which flows down the escarpment to feed Lake Ontario at Hamilton Harbour.

With a piece of hay already in her mouth, Allie points out raspberry bushes, apple trees, and small brown toads along the path. Isabelle tells us her grandkids love to visit the farm, pointing out the remnants of a tree fort under an old pine. When we reach the end of the mown path, we keep going, walking now through knee-high hay. The threatened bobolinks are calling from the middle of the field; the Harmers postpone harvesting the hay each year to maintain cover while the birds lay their eggs.

As we hike through the hay, our boots begin to earn their keep. This part of the farm is muddy in spots where groundwater comes to the surface. The sun is warm, so it is a relief to step into the woods when we reach the end of the fields. We’re in a moist, cool place, with a ceiling of leaves and a floor of healthy green plants. Isabelle points out the Jack-in-the-pulpits growing low to the ground, lifting their folded leaves to reveal a hiding “Jack”. She brings us to the edge of one of the wetlands on the property, where filtered sunlight is reflected on water like green glass. The threatened Jefferson salamander lives in these ponds, but it is too late in the season to see them crawling into the water now.

We emerge from the cover of trees into a narrow tract, marked by tire ruts, that signifies the division between the Harmers’ farm and the property owned by Nelson Aggregate Company. Nelson hopes to quarry this part of their land when their existing quarry, to the north of where we stand with Isabelle, runs out of rock. Densely planted pine trees block any peek we might have had of the property, part of the regionally significant woodlands standing in the way of Nelson’s quarrying hopes.

Along the property line, Isabelle points out metal pumps, now padlocked. She tells us how Nelson used to pump water from the quarry onto their land, often overwhelming the wetlands. The Harmers had to ask their neighbour to stop the pumping, forcing Nelson to find somewhere else to deposit the groundwater they pump off their land.

Allie Kosela and Isabelle Harmer touring the wetlands and fields in the Harmer farm that is next door to land the quarry wants to open up for quarrying for the next 20 years.

Allie Kosela and Isabelle Harmer touring the wetlands and fields in the Harmer farm that is next door to land the quarry wants to open up for quarrying for the next 20 years.

We walk west along the ruts until Isabelle pulls us back into the woods to show us the sinkhole on her land. Sometimes filled with water, the sinkhole shows that the ground below us is limestone or dolomite, soluble calcium-based rock prone to dissolving in water. Isabelle tells us about the time she moved a large rock at the bottom of the sinkhole and saw two wide salamander eyes peering up from the soil. She quickly put the rocks back, leaving the salamanders to their cool home.

From the sinkhole, it isn’t far to the largest expanse of wetlands on the Harmers’ farm. This is a particularly wet year and the wetlands weave beautifully through the trees. Part of a provincial significant wetland complex, the Harmers and their fellow members of Protecting Escarpment Rural Land [PERL] worked hard to have these wetlands properly evaluated and classified by certified experts a few years ago. Because they are fed by both ground and surface water, they are vulnerable to drawdown, or “under-draining” (draining from below) if dewatering for a new quarry happens next door.

It is clear that water is an asset on the Harmer farm. Wetlands and sinkholes are respected, left for the frogs, salamanders, and exploring humans to enjoy. The connection of the creeks to waters downstream is evident throughout the property.

In striking contrast, water on the adjacent Nelson land is a big problem. After our hike through the fields and woods with Isabelle Harmer, Allie and I board a yellow school bus to tour the quarry. The dryness of the land is overwhelming. After wandering through the lush Harmer farm with our feet in mud puddles all morning, the dusty quarry property seems just about barren.

Water is a problem for Nelson because they excavate rock below the water table. Groundwater from the surrounding area empties into the quarry, posing a threat to local wells and the stability of the ground. To keep the area dry for their machines and staff, Nelson pumps that water out of the quarry all day, every day. This year has been so wet that they can’t pump it out fast enough; huge piles of aggregate will sit in ponded water until August.

Water is also a key issue at the Joint Board hearing into Nelson’s proposed quarry expansion. Nelson has applied to extend their quarry by more than 80 hectares onto the land between the existing quarry and the Harmers’ farm. The hearing began last November and is scheduled to continue until at least December of this year. The long list of planning and aggregate extraction approvals Nelson requires to dig a new quarry triggered this hearing – a joint process of the Ontario Municipal Board and the Environmental Review Tribunal.

The hearing has just passed a pivotal point: Nelson’s lawyers have finished presenting the case for a new quarry and it is now time to hear from those opposed to the proposal, including the City of Burlington, Region of Halton, Niagara Escarpment Commission, Conservation Halton, and PERL. Between our hike on the farm and our bus tour of the quarry, Allie and I dropped by the home of another active PERL member: Roger Goulet.

Roger’s house is around the corner from the Harmers’, just to the west of the quarry. His huge back windows look out at a sea of leafy trees sloping to the Medad Valley. Roger tells us over tea that he is optimistic at this stage of the hearing, and a lot of that optimism has to do with water.

Nelson’s witnesses told the Board that the new quarry won’t affect surrounding groundwater or nearby wetlands because the area sits in a huge clay bowl. The bowl layer is impermeable, so even if the quarry drains the area, no one outside Nelson’s property will be affected. Roger tells us why the hydrogeology experts testifying for the City, Region, and PERL disagree.

Instead of an impervious bowl, the hydro geologists tell the Board about undulating rock topography – more like the surface of an ancient lake than a salad bowl. The wavy rock is all connected and full of cracks and fractures, so draining groundwater from one area can affect water at the surface and in the other pockets. Each little pond, sinkhole, or wetland is connected to, and supplied in part by, groundwater. Ultimately, these are what feed and replenish Lake Ontario. This is truly source water: starting as a home for frogs, fish, and salamanders, this water becomes our drinking water, where we swim and fish, canoe and sail.

It is wetlands like these that the PERL people are trying to save as they oppose the granting of an additional license for quarrying to Nelson Aggregates.

It is wetlands like these that the PERL people are trying to save as they oppose the granting of an additional license for quarrying to Nelson Aggregates.

PERL is putting everything they have, from energy to money to heart, into this Joint Board hearing, but they haven’t lost sight of why they are doing it. For the people who live on the Mount Nemo Plateau, and all who seek refuge in the beauty of its conservation areas, on its public trails, or atop its lofty cliffs, this hearing is part of a larger vision of the plateau. Roger reminds us that his house, the quarry, and the Harmers’ farm are all within a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve: the Niagara Escarpment. Working to protect the land from more quarrying, PERL discovered the wetlands, woodlands, and threatened species now central to the hearing. They also discovered how much they have to protect.

Going into the second half of these hearings, PERL is optimistic. They have built a strong case and founded it on science, with expert evidence in hydrogeology, ecology, and planning. The going has definitely not been easy – more like a hike up the escarpment face than its gently sloping back – but we can see why they keep at it. It only takes a short walk to the back of the Harmers’ farm in rain boots to understand.




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