From the headwaters in Central Frontenac to the marshy perimeter of Hay Bay, Wilton Creek, still referred to as Big Creek by some of the locals, quietly winds its way westward through miles of picturesque countryside. Well-kept farms dot its banks and for generations, the creek has served as a natural water supply for cattle.
But Wilton Creek, for all its storybook qualities, is also at the centre of a long-running, bitter dispute. A core group of farmers, some of whom can trace their family history in the area back to the 1800s, make up one side of the divisive issue. On the other, the single, but loud voice of a woman who has adopted the title of environmentalist or, depending on the forum, an expert in farm pollution.
Since moving to a property on the Big Creek Road more than 10 years ago, Donna McPherson has waged a campaign against farmers who have cattle grazing near the creek. Over the years her complaints have been heard by everyone from Environment Canada investigators, to OMAFRA to the local police. The list of those who hear from McPherson on a regular basis includes the Ontario Ministry of the Environment, various media outlets, conservation authorities and members of well-known environmental groups. She’s been successful in bringing to the area some of the aforementioned so they can see for themselves the situation along Wilton Creek.
That situation, says McPherson, is not only dangerous, it’s lethal. "Please get livestock out of our waterways," she wrote in a recent e-mail circulated to at least a page of addresses. "We know that manure contamination kills and we have a moral responsibility to do something."
This point and others are hammered out repeatedly via e-mail, faxes and letters to the editor. While the subject matter sometimes varies along with the location of incidents, the central theme most often is this: cattle have no business being near, and certainly not in, bodies of water.
"The cattle physically are in our waterways ... outside the barn they stand in the waterways," McPherson told The AgriNews. "If it’s raining ... all that water runs into ditches and streams. Farmers along Wilton Creek were all told they could not put their cattle in the water.
"Those farmers know that these people in Walkerton have died."
While property owners in the area say they’ve been hearing from McPherson for the past 10 or so years, they also agree there have been more intense times along the way, the latest being the Walkerton tragedy. Well before any definitive answers are known, McPherson has made the connection between agriculture and contaminated water. "I am scared for so many people,"she says. "Those people in Walkerton didn’t have to die."
McPherson, who lives on the road adjacent to the creek, claims contamination in the water killed her springer spaniel some years ago. The dog, she says, "would drink at the creek" all the time, a habit which, she’s convinced, led to the "liver problems" which killed him.
"There is no person along Wilton Creek that’s deliberately polluting the creek," says Allan Gardiner, a county director for the Ontario Federation of Agriculture. "Nobody’s getting up in the morning and says ‘I’m going to pollute that creek’."
Gardiner asks that if the creek is so polluted, how is it that the walleye are both healthy and prolific? "(People are) taking 10- to 14-pound walleye out of there," said Gardiner on a recent tour of farms in the area. "How can there be a deleterious substance in there?"
The term "deleterious substances" comes up frequently amoung farmers and other landowners in Greater Napanee. That’s likely because a series of charges laid against a local commercial hog operation, Hay Bay Genetics, is common knowledge. Those charges, laid by Environment Canada and contained in the federal Fisheries Act, Department of Fisheries and Oceans, talk specifically about hurting fish or fish habitat. It’s a piece of law that seems to touch another nerve for McPherson. "Under the federal Fisheries Act you can’t put any deleterious matter into the water where fish are," says McPherson. "We protect fish but not people."
According to John Grieve, an investigator with Environment Canada, there are stringent guidelines protecting fish and fish habitat. However, he says when it comes to stricter regulations regarding issues like manure and waterways, it’s "the obligation of the province.
"I suppose you could put laws into place saying you can’t allow cattle in the creek ... you could put in a law and you could legislate it ... that’s not our role federally."
Grieve is one of several government officials who, when asked, is well acquainted with the Wilton Creek. He’s visited the area, he’s met with the farmers and he’s come away convinced a problem does exist in the water. And he agrees with much of what McPherson is contending.
"Her concern is the release of manure and farm effluents into the creek where she lives," says Grieve. "Depositing manure piles in areas where they leak into the creek, rain and run-off runs into the creek ... Cattle being in the creek, defacating in the creek, run off from agricultural fields into the creek.
"She’s got a cause and it’s a good cause," Grieve continues, "Everything she says is basically true."
It’s comments like these which can still raise the ire of people like David Fretts. David, his wife Willa and their son Todd live on the "home farm" located about a mile south of the Wilton Creek. But for years they’ve kept some of their dry cows and heifers in a barn "about 300-400 feet" from the watercourse, an arrangement which is likely about to change. The Fretts, tired of their dealings with McPherson, are in the midst of moving all the cattle into the main barn where the water isn’t an issue.
"She’s an antagonist more than anything else," said Dave, during an impromptu family discussion on the subject of their neighbor. "Anything at all that can be remotely construed as being a threat to her is blown out of proportion.
"Our little farming community is all of a sudden polluting the whole world."
The Fretts admit they’ve spent a lot of time over the years talking not only about the allegations, but also about the person making them. "I could see if there were a thousand cows in there, but there’s less cattle in there now than there was 50 years ag," says Todd, as emotional about the issue as his parents appear to be.
"It’s almost like we’ve got a thousand head and they’re in there all day long."
Todd admits cattle belonging to farmers along the creek use it for drinking but says at any time of the day they can more likely be seen pasturing the uneven, rough terrain surrounding the water. "Twice or three times a day they go in for a drink then they go back and graze," he says. "You might get the odd heifer that will stand in there on a hot day for a few minutes."
Todd also points out that without the cattle, the "cleaning and grooming" of the creek wouldn’t be done. "They keep the weeds down and pick the grass off," a job, which he says "nobody’s going to pay for."
Like neighbouring farmers the Fretts can talk at length about the issue but a bitter note runs through the conversation as each of them admits to being tired of constantly being put on the defensive. Says Todd, "The creek has become a hindrance to farmers. I never used to think about it before but now it’s a negative. I’d rather they just filled it in."
In spite of the allegations, many of the old farming practices have changed significantly over the years, according to John Wise, a well-known organic farmer in nearby Centreville and a steward of the Environmental Farm Plan.
"I know of spots where problems have been addressed by landowners," says Wise, adding that for the farmer, there are "no economic returns for any of these improvements.""
The EFP, Wise explains, is a "multi-agency" program developed in 1993 by a number of farm oganizations. Calling it an "education process," Wise says farmers develop an action plan and make their way through a "three-ring binder of checklists" designed to address a range of environmental risks in their operation. He says about 20,000 farmers in Ontario have gone through the plan, including some along the Wilton Creek, with more signing up all the time.
When asked if there are environmental problems along the creek, Wise doesn’t offer a specific answer, but instead says there are "shades of grey.
"Cattle can cause a lot of damage to stream banks. They can break down the vegetation on banks and can harm the fish spawning bed," he says. "It’s a question of how many cattle and how long they’ve been there. It just depends on the dilution rate."
Wise says discussions about cattle and waterways must take in a number of factors. For example, cattle aren’t the only animals found in the vicinity of a creek. "All kinds of little bugs and animals are pooping by the stream all the time. Water plants depend on some nutrients to survive.
"It’s all a question of balance again ... it’s a matter of how much and how often."
Larry Wannamaker would probably agree with Wise’s assessment. On a warm late-spring day none of his own cattle could be found at or near the creek. "They’re off somewhere in the shade," said Wannamaker, a long-time resident of Big Creek Road who recently switched to beef after raising Holsteins for 40 years. Wannamaker’s land includes about 20 acres of creek flats, an area which "floods every spring" but which otherwise serves as good pastureland.
The yearly flooding, he says, is the reason a permanent fence wouldn’t work. He says that with ice and flooding he’d be forced to take the fence out every spring and replace it in the fall. As well, says Wannamaker, the cattle he keeps at the creek, "15 at the most," wouldn’t have access to the 20 acres of pasture if he put a fence up. He adds the cattle "only cross at one spot" and their time in the water is brief.
Wannamaker says that while some environmentalists point the finger at cattle, the real source of water trouble is being largely ignored. "Geese," he says, "are a lot more of a polluter than cattle. Imagine a thousand geese down there in the spring and fall," he says, pointing to the acres of creek flats. "What do geese do after they’ve eaten?"
Cattle, on the other hand, use the creek in much smaller numbers, and are doing only what is expected within the laws of nature. "Cattle eat grass and they pass manure which means they’re putting back in the water what they’ve taken out."
Wannamaker’s simple statement really addresses the crux of the issue regarding the question of manure and its deposit in or near waterways. Much of the confusion about just what is acceptable stems from the fact that there are no existing provincial laws. It’s an area of agriculture that is under constant study, says Harold Cuthbertson, a rural environment engineer at OMAFRA.
Cuthbertson says there’s been "a lot of concern" along the Wilton Creek with more work being done there by various government factions "than in a lot of other areas.
"Some people would like to have the cattle out of the water courses totally," says Cuthbertson. "Those involved are trying to reach a compromise so farmers can at least use their land."
He goes on to say there are three approaches: Cattle should have total access to creeks; "no access whatsoever," or lastly, some sort of "controlled access." Cuthbertson says it’s the last idea that is "being discussed right now.
"It’s been worked on for the last couple of years. The Ministry of Agrictulture, Food and Rural Affairs along with the cattlemen and the federations are trying to come up with some sort of compromise."
For people like McPherson, a compromise, if and when it comes, likely won’t be enough. One of her pleas, sent out by e-mail, asks people to "call Ernie Hardeman, Minister of Agriculture and tell him we want it written into law that no one gets a farm tax number unless they have completed an Environmental Farm Plan. Tell him," the electronic missive continues, "to comb the countryside for cattle in our waterways and yank them out."