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Dams & Hydroelectric Power – or “Selling the Same Water 3-4 Times Over!”

Posted by – March 3, 2016

Hydropower has an enviable reputation of being clean, green, and renewable. This was probably true of the earliest installations which ground flour, sawed wood, crushed various ores and treated woolen cloth (fulling mills). The earliest hydroelectric installations were “run-of-the-river”. They simply diverted part of the water flowing over a fall or rapids through their generating equipment – generally a simple water wheel.
Once the easy “run-of-the-river” power sites had been used, the world wanted more. This demand was satisfied by building dams, artificially raising water level, so increasing the amount of power which could be generated at the site.

Some of these dams are monsters:
The James Bay complex 25m to 150m (range over 11 generating stations)
Kariba Dam (Zambezi R. Zimbabwe) 128m
Cahora Bassa (Zambezi R. Mozambique) 171m
Sardar Sarovar (Narmada River) 139m+ number of people relocated not known . . . millions!
Itaipu (Argentina/Brazil) 118m
Three Gorges (China) 181m 1,250,000 people were relocated!
Grand Coulee (Columbia R) 170m
Mica Dam (Columbia R.) 240m
Glen Canyon Dam (Colorado R.) 200m
Hoover Dam (Colorado R.) 220m
Jones Falls (Rideau Canal – 1830) 18m – an early dam which still has a (tiny) hydroelectric plant
Niagara Falls 51m (for comparison)
Victoria Falls (Zambezi R.) 108m (for comparison)

Obvious Effects
Clearly, the relocation of thousands of people is an environmental issue. The land these people used to occupy and use for their livelihoods now need to be moved to another site. In places like China and India, there is very little land which might be labelled “spare”. These folk must use already occupied land more intensely – or starve! Relocation also occurs in the jungles of South America, or among the smallholders of Africa. More forest must be cleared.
But this is not what I wish to talk about!

Rivers & Lakes
When you look out over a lake or river, it isn’t immediately obvious to you that the river or lake basin is not lined in plastic or asphalt. Occasionally, river bottoms are rock (eg: the French River near Sudbury). However, generally, lake and river bottoms are sand, mud or gravel.
How, then, do the rivers not drain out????
The answer is simple if not obvious. The water table around a body of water is roughly the same level as the water in the lake or river. The water table may actually be feeding the water body (a “gaining” river), or, it may be draining it out a “losing” river), or, the two may be in equilibrium.
Two Examples:
In some locations, where wells have been drilled and much water withdrawn, rivers and lakes have literally vanished. A small retirement community in Florida was located around a small lake. The retirees had enjoyed some quiet fishing when one morning they literally found their lake gone – dry and empty. A little research found that the nearby City of Tampa had drilled a new well and started pumping days before their lake vanished. The land under most of Florida is “karst” – a very porous limestone. Tampa’s well lowered the water table and the lake emptied. Tampa’s response was typical America. They installed another well and pump and simply re-filled the lake with ground water from somewhere else . . . Cheap energy has its uses . . .
The City of Austin, Texas has a district called “Riverwalk”. Withdrawls of ground water caused the river through Austin to dry seasonally. The obvious solution was to pump groundwater into it . . .

How About Putting Water Back Underground??

Why would anyone want to put water back underground? After all, we spend much time and treasure creating wells to pump water out of the ground! Is someone crazy here?
Actually, not at all. The connection between ground water and nearby rivers, lakes is the reason. We can cause these bodies of water to vanish by (unsustainable) pumping of nearby ground water. Moreover, when these (costly) wells run dry as the water table drops; new, deeper wells are needed – which are then pumped dry!
This has been happening for decades in the American Midwest, above the Oglala aquifer. There, crops are planted in circles with circular irrigation system slowly rotating above the crop. However, at many sites the Oglala aquifer’s water table has dropped so low that pumping has become too costly (sale of the crop no longer yields a profit), and the land above is abandoned. This area is not a desert. However, the water is being pumped out of the aquifer faster than rainfall can replace it!

Another place which has dried up is the State of Rajahstan in India’s north-west. It does get rain, but is also home to the Thar Desert . . . The Arvari River used to run through the state. It became seasonal, then in ~1930 it dried almost completely, only running for a short time during the monsoon rains.
The monsoon rains in Rajahstan are not gentle. They drench the land, but often just briefly. Then the water simply sheets off the ground without soaking in. The rivers fill rapidly, often flooding. In particularly dry regions, the ground rarely becomes wet enough to be in a condition to absorb the water falling on it!
The “Rainman of Rajahstan”, Rajendra Singh, persuaded farmers and village folk to construct many small, earthen dams (called bunds, johads, khadins, etc) to trap the water runoff. These “johads” are often arranged in cascade. When one overflows, the water is trapped by other dams below it.
The effect of these dams is to give the rainwater time to soak into the ground. They also reduce erosion. In addition, trees planted at the edges of the ponds provide shade and lower wind speed, slowing evaporation. These trees also supply food for people, livestock fodder, and their roots stabilize the dam.
The effect of many thousands of these dams has been nothing short of miraculous! In 1990, the Arvari River began to flow – permanently – for the first time in 60 years! Moreover, wells which had run dry long before, began to yield water again, greatly reducing the distances people had to travel to obtain it!

In effect, Rajendra Singh, the “Rainman of Rajahstan”, had restored the local water table. He had done this without tapping into foreign aid. By showing the local people that they could massively improve their lives through their own efforts, he restored their pride, and ensured that these projects were maintained and thus became “permanent”.
Unlike our tradition of storing water in mega-dams, the Rajahstan project filtered water (through soil) first and stored it underground, safe from evaporation and contamination by cattle!
Rainman, Rajendra Singh is a saint!
From “A River Runs Again” by Meera Subramanian

Unfortunately, it is less easy to see how this approach might be applied to the dry American “west”. India has an abundance of cheap labour; moreover this labour worked without pay because they were convinced that their efforts would improve their lives. There were also old folk alive in the region who had memories of a flowing Arvari River, so could help convince people that this could work.

In the southern coastal City of Chennai, aggressive groundwater pumping had resulted in salt infiltration of many wells. “Water Woman” Shantha Sheela Nair got a bylaw passed requiring all rainwater runoff from roofs to be directed into the soil around or under buildings. This recharged the groundwater, long dehydrated by acres of paved roads whose sewers shot the rainwater directly into the sea!
In effect, Chennai’s rooftops had become its “johads”!
From “A River Runs Again” by Meera Subramanian

What About Dams?
Imagine a river basin in equilibrium with the surrounding ground water. When someone erects a dam on this river, the water table above the dam rises (as the new lake forms), and the water table below the dam falls as the water level in that part of the river (presumably) drops. It must do so while the dam is filling.
This development can affect wells many kilometres distant from the new dam. Groundwater recharge zones may fall below the water table drying distant wells permanently. On the other hand, above the dam, terrain may become waterlogged with the rising water table.
In a curious incident, a factory was built beside the (Russian) Volga River. This factory was designed to machine high precision tubing of great length, and to a very high degree of accuracy. Accordingly, the factory was put on top of a large, thick concrete slab. In effect, the slab formed the bed of a giant lathe. The precision tubing is machined using this huge lathe.
A dam was built on the Volga downstream of the factory. As the water level in this dam rose, the land around the factory became soggy. In time, the concrete slab deformed slightly. As a result the factory was unable to work as efficiently as it was designed to do.
This factory was making pressure tubes for the latest Soviet nuclear reactors – a Pressurized Water Reactor. Because this factory was unable to keep up with demand, the nuclear reactor built at Chernobyl was an older design; the RBMK, graphite moderated reactor. Yes, this was the design which failed so spectacularly . . .

African Dams
Most African Rivers are very full during the rainy season and barely flow in the dry season. This has been true for at least a million years. Probably the best known of these is the Nile whose flood refreshed and irrigated the agricultural lands of Egypt from the start of recorded time. Egyptians used to sow their seed as the annual flood was receding – a technique called “recession agriculture”. These crops grew & matured rapidly under cloudless skies, feeding off the brand new soil washed in from the Ethiopian highlands.
The first dam at Aswan was quite low and barely disturbed this age-old pattern. However, the Aswan High Dam was designed to hold back the entire rainy season flood. The water was released gradually, through power turbines, over the year. Irrigation allowed Egypt to greatly expand their agricultural land and to irrigate during the dry season – thus growing at least two, but often three crops in a season.
The downside was (a) standing water in the irrigation ditches facilitated malaria, bilharzia & other diseases, (b) the rich silt which had sustained Egyptian agriculture for 7000 years was now trapped in Lake Nasser forcing Egyptians to apply fertilizer, and (c) rapid evaporation of the irrigation water (under a very hot sun) plus fertilizer caused the fields to become saline – some abandoned; others suffering low productivity.
In time, Lake Nasser will fill up with the Nile’ legendary silt and become completely useless – will not be able to hold the volume of the rainy season. I am not sure what one might do what that happens, but why worry, Lake Nasser is enormous – 550km long and 35km wide (max). It will not fill with silt for at least a century . . .

A Typical African River
During the rains, a typical African river swells to several times its dry season size. For example, the flow over the Zambezi River’s Victoria Falls during the rains is 10 times its dry season flow! During the rainy season, as land is flooded, huge numbers of insects in the soil begin to drown. The fish go nuts over the abundant food supply, using this to power their annual breeding season.
In addition to depositing silt over the drowned land, fish droppings provide additional fertilizer. Of course, the water itself soaks the soil readying it to receive the farmers’ seed.
Once their seed is scattered, and the newly hatched fish have grown, the farmers become fishermen. These fish are dried for use over the rest of the year. The fishermen are now ready to harvest the crop they sowed, and to eat the vegetable matter enriched by the protein they harvested earlier.
Some of these folk are also in the habit of grazing the dry lands away from the river; cows, goats, perhaps camels, with a few sheep (a good desert animal) thrown in.
This has been the pattern for millennia. The fish are primed for it, the insects are adapted to it, and man has taken advantage of the local ecology – everything is in harmony.

A Typical African River Dammed – or perhaps “Damned” . . .
Oddly enough, local potentates begin to acquire dry, low productivity, scrub land a long way from the river. This land may have been used to graze some livestock, but nobody really “owned” it – not until fences begin to spring up – leaving the local fishermen/farmers/herdsmen puzzled . . .
Then bulldozers and trucks moved in. In time the locals learned that a dam is being built. But they don’t understand why. They may be told that the dam will protect them from the annual flood – from which they never before needed or wanted “protection”. They may be told that they will get electricity – which they have never needed before and have limited use for – but it has the ring of modernity . . .
In time the dam is built. When that happens, the river stops flowing below the dam. So there is no fresh silt on the land, and the fish harvest is modest because the drowning insect bonanza isn’t happening. The amount of land which can be sown for crops is very small . . .
Above the dam, the flood is higher than normal, and it does not recede. So no land can be sown. The fish harvest is pretty good though. The following year people above the dam must move because the next year’s flood builds on top of the old one. The people below the dam have been reduced to poverty because they have little crop and little fish – the fish of the area are less fond of stagnant water than they were of running water . . .
Eventually, the dam is full. It turns out that the dry, fenced off, scrub land now has a lakeshore. With abundant water nearby, this land is ideal for grazing – perhaps even for dairy cows. It is also good for lakeshore villas, speedboats and luxury.
Below the dam is where the real action is. The peasants are either hungry or completely driven off because their traditional lifestyle can no longer possible. Their land is acquired by plutocrats, levelled and irrigated for rice or other cash crop. The former peasants are hired as cheap labour on these farms. This land can be irrigated – more or less for free because gravity brings the water to them from the dam. Land above the dam, if it is to be irrigated, needs pumps to raise the water to the land. Not as profitable, unless the electricity is very cheap.
Electricity is now available in the neighbourhood – but only if you can pay for it, and for the power lines bringing it to the customer!

How was this project sold?
Well, the first and best selling point is the hydroelectricity. This is relatively cheap (over the long term), reliable and abundant. If priced right, it may be cheap enough for aluminum smelting. Aluminum smelting now happens in Ghana – but the hydroelectric power plant is underused because the government never installed the full complement of generators and didn’t build power lines to the local potential consumers . . . The growing cities of Africa always need electricity, and if the country doesn’t have coal, hydropower is a great selling point.
Cities are often established along rivers. They have always been inconvenienced, sometimes devastated, by flooding. A dam is often sold to them as a flood control project. “We will capture the rainy season flood & control the flow through the year.” – so no more floods. Also, the river will not dry up seasonally.
To politicians and investors the irrigation sounds very good. They see a market for the cash crops grown with cheap (free?) water, tended & harvested with cheap labour.
Some of these good folk are already wealthy, or expect to become so. They are tempted by the prospect of recreation water. The lake above the dam can have resorts and luxury homes, just like the capitalist world – very tempting!

So that is how the same water has been sold four times over: it is

(1) hydroelectricity,

(2) irrigation,

(3) flood control and

(4) recreation.

These uses are mutually exclusive:

– A dam used for hydroelectricity must be kept as full as possible, because the head (height) of water determines how much power can be generated, and for how long. An empty dam generates nothing . . .

– A dam used for flood control must be kept as empty as possible so it can accomodate the “100 year flood”.

– If a lake is surrounded by resorts and villas with docks, they will be upset if the water level drops!

– Water passing through the turbines cannot be used for irrigation because to do that it must be pumped back uphill to where the crops are. This costs electricity as well as pressure piping – far more expensive than open ditches filled with gravity driven water.

One More Issue – Silt!
Silt is not just a fertilizer and renewal treatment for farmland. It’s not just a nuisance relentlessly building up behind virtually all power dams. It is also an abrasive continuously acting on penstocks, turbine housings and blades, eventually wearing them to the point of replacement.
What is often forgotten is the role of silt in land building. The characteristic delta forming at the mouth of many great rivers: the Mississippi, Mekong, Niger, Nile, Amazon, Zambezi and others. (Look at their characteristic appearance in an atlas.) The low land now called the Netherlands is very rich agricultural soil deposited over many millennia by the river Rhine. The Rhone has created a similarly huge delta in the south of France around the old Roman city of Arles and between Marseilles and Montpellier.
One excellent example is China’s Yangtze. The world’s largest city, Shanghai (over 24 million people), is built on its silt. Of course, the supply of silt stopped abruptly when the Three Gorges Dam started filling. So now the Yangtze is gradually eroding the silt supporting Shanghai . . .
That’s not the end of the problem. The water around the mouth of the Yangtze supported a huge fishery. The species living in that area liked silty, low-salinity water. Now that the dam is filling, less water flows to the sea and the water is more saline. In addition, the water has little silt. Unsurprisingly, the fishery has collapsed. Doubtless, it will improve as new species which prefer clear saline water move in, but for now, the fishermen return home disappointed.
This is not an isolated case. Much of Egypt’s agriculture happens on the Nile delta. Its silt supply cut off, this is gradually eroding and individual peasant farmers are gradually losing their land. Fish catches in the eastern Mediterranean have declined with the loss of their supply of nutrient-laden Nile silt.
One reason the City of New Orleans flooded when hit by hurricane Katrina was the gradual loss of silt-fed wetlands around the City, particularly those protecting the entrance to Lake Pontchartrain. The Mississippi used to empty into the area protective Lake Pontchartrain, but to facilitate shipping, the river was constrained into a canal out to the Caribbean, cutting off the silt.
On the left are photographs of the Chandeleur islands lying to the south east of New Orleans. These uninhabited islands – created of Mississippi silt long ago – once acted as protection for the city from storm surges, but Katrina almost washed them away. The next storm surge will have almost unhindered access to Lake Pontchartrain and New Orleans.
So, perhaps dams also act as flood promotion . . .!

A few more “small” items . . .

(1) Poison!
In northern Quebec, a set of huge hydroelectricity projects were constructed; the James Bay Project. This is considered “clean” electricity. However, the new lakes formed leached mercury from the local rock. This mercury, converted to an organic form: methylmercury, has made their fish and any creatures eating them, toxic for people!
The First Nations inhabiting this land have been warned that they should eat tinned meat & fish instead of traditional foods from their traditional lands. However, nobody offered to supply them with this form of protein!

Is this the only instance of artificial lakes dissolving toxic materials out of the rock & soil they now cover?

(2) Evaporation!
Many large dams have been built in tropical regions where temperatures are high year-round. Clearly, water evaporates from the artificial lakes created by the dams.
Lake Nasser, formed behind Egypt’s Aswan High Dam, is located in the eastern Sahara Desert. Situated in a particularly dry desert, it loses a lot of water to evaporation. One study calculated evaporative losses of 7mm/day; this translates to around 15 billion cubic metres per year. The annual discharge of the Nile is 89 billion m3, so the Aswan High Dam has decreased the volume of water supplied to Egypt by 17%! Together with seepage (loss to the water table), 25% of the Nile’s annual flow is lost before it reaches Egyptian farms and people!
America’s Glen Canyon Dam created Lake Powell. This is the 2nd largest dam in the USA and located between dessicated Nevada and very dry southern Utah. It evaporates approximately 10% of the annual flow of the Colorado River. Lake Mead (behind Hoover Dam) is entirely in the southern Nevada desert, and must lose at least that much water! It has been estimated that the various dams along the Colorado River cause the evaporation of a quarter of the flow of the Colorado River!
California is not in its 4th year of unprecedented drought. Many California ski centres had no snow for 4 years. They do have snow this winter, but less than “normal”. Even this winter’s heavy rains have not come close to replenishing the state’s desperately dry reservoirs. Against this background, one might conclude that there are far too many dams, causing the wanton loss of far too much water, along the Colorado River!

(3) Flawed Economics!
In Africa and other regions where peasant agriculture rules, the output of small enterprises is simply not logged. So when a peasant exchanges a stalk of bananas for a basket of fish, only the neighbours & relatives of the two traders know. The government & its economists definitely do not know and have no easy way to discover the economic value such exchanges represent.
So when irrigated rice plantations, commercially grown maize, dairy farms and greenhouses filled with flowers or tomatoes spring up on what were once peasant farms and pastoralists grazing land, government economists log their output as a positive contribution to the nation’s GDP. To this is added the hydroelectric power, and tourism associated with the beautiful lake behind the shiny new dam. There is no entry on the negative side of the ledger. However, the lost fishery and the peasant impoverishment are still there, even if nobody notices!

(4) Do Dams Provide Flood Prevention, or do they just Threaten Much Bigger Floods?
The Mosul dam on the Tigris River is in danger of collapsing. Of course, people have been building on the flood plain simply because the dam exists. Its collapse would flood Baghdad and other cities along the river. Moreover, the flooding would extend well beyond the flood plain associated with the “normal” river flood prior to the construction of the dam. And then there are a number of Himalayan dams built in active earthquake zones . . .

Perhaps this essay should have been entitled: Hydroelectric Power – peeling away the green paint!

In fact, Hydroelectric Power is one of our world’s least damaging sources of electricity. That does not mean we should be blind to the social and environmental problems it may cause!

Earth Day

Posted by – April 4, 2015

LG 25 Gala Poster 8.5x11 040215 LR-1

25 years ago, Living Green began its mission to make Barrie a more green city.

Come Celebrate

Living Green Barrie’s Earth Day 25th Anniversary Gala presented by Organics Live

This is a fundraising event for Living Green Barrie.

Tickets are only $25, and can be ordered online, or by calling 705-721-6867.

Our Key Note Speaker is Peter Sale, author of best-selling book Our Dying Planet. Also joining us… MC will be Dan Blakeley from Rock 95/Kool FM. Performance & speech from 2015 Winner of the Barrie Spirit Catcher Award Shane L.S. Dennis. And Al Gore Climate Change trained Erich Jacoby-Hawkins on Living Green past & future.

Sponsored by:
Organics Live | Barrie
Rock 95
107.5 Kool FM
Barrie Examiner
Discovery Forrest School

Midhurst mega-development learning walks invitation

Posted by – September 10, 2014

Climate Action Now – Barrie has organized three walks, to learn about how the Midhurst mega-development may impact local history, agriculture, and environment.

We will be joined on these walks by guides, who will speak on the significant aboriginal habitation, culture, and tradition within the area, on the value of preserving our prime farmland for future generations, and on the vital ecological interlinkages that sustain a healthy environment.
Dates and locations are:
Aboriginal Habitation, Culture, and Tradition
September 28th, at 3pm, at Anne St. N., and Carson Rd. There are some steep, rutted paths on this walk, so come prepared with decent shoes or boots.
The Value of Preserving Prime Farmland
October 5th, at 3pm, at the Midhurst Community Hall. This is a bus tour, so semi-accessible (it’ll likely be a school bus). Once back at the Community Hall we’ll be meeting with local groups and individuals concerned about the development.
The Environment
October 19th, at 3pm, at Meadow Mouse Trail, which is just north of Snow Valley Rd. on the West side of George Johnson Rd. Come prepared with decent shoes or boots.
Refreshments will be served after all events, and there will be an opportunity to write a postcard expressing a position (one way or another) to the Premier, among others.
Please share this with whomever you think would be interested.
You can find up-to-date information, and RSVP online, at:
Invitation flyer attached. LINK
Adam Ballah, MES
On behalf of Climate Action Now – Barrie

When feeding wildlife is fowl

Posted by – May 2, 2014

What’s the difference between feeding a chipmunk and feeding a goose? In Barrie, one is illegal, the other is not.

Last year the City passed a bylaw wisely banning the feeding of wildlife, with the notable exception of well-maintained backyard bird feeders, because wildlife feeding causes many problems. It attracts animals that become habituated to humans, and can then be more aggressive. Their feces on our lawns and beaches can be a health risk. And the foods people commonly throw to them –bread, crackers, popcorn – is “junk food” not suited to their nutritional needs.

But in their wisdom, Council restricted the bylaw to mammals; feeding ducks and geese is still permitted, although discouraged in parks. Yet this is one of the more problematic feeding issues. It is one thing to attract squirrels or raccoons to your backyard – you (and your immediate neighbours) will suffer the direct consequences. But feeding waterfowl at Barrie’s waterfront ends up despoiling the area for all of us who share this wonderful natural feature.

As other cities like Mississauga and Oakville have shown, you can include waterfowl among animals prohibited to feed. Doing so is probably easier to enforce, too, because squirrel-feeding usually happens at home while duck-feeding is usually done in public parks and waterways. And even if the by-law isn’t aggressively enforced, visible signage can help reduce the harms.

And the harms will become more apparent. Canada goose populations are at an all-time peak, and continue to rise. These geese thrive under human development, which actually provides more convenient spaces for them to live & eat than nature does. Their increase is most noticeable at the waterfront upon which rest so many of Barrie’s hopes for economic growth and amenity improvement. Do we want to attract more geese, and their poop, to the same place we are drawing people? Will aggressive geese and ducks make visiting the waterfront more fun?

There are even some who feel it’s such a problem that the City should start aggressively reducing the goose population. In more rural areas, hunting them is permitted but I don’t think we want guns around our lakeshore. You can also destroy eggs or nests, or try to scare geese away periodically (usually with guns or aircraft – again, not great for our waterfront), or even have the birds relocated. But none of that works in the long term if we keep attracting them by feeding them junk food.

There may be options for bird relocation the City would not have to pay for, which would be a good way to get a handle on the problem, but when it comes to dealing with nature, prevention beats a cure. We should learn to watch wildlife behaving naturally, which for geese means eating plants and seeds, not running after us to eat a scattering of human food. It’s not like there will be a sudden shortage of these common birds; they are very capable of feeding themselves and don’t need our help.

So what do you think? Should Barrie expand its bylaw to disallow feeding geese and ducks? Should we look into ways to reduce excess birds, by increasing suitable natural spaces away from the parklands maintained for human use, and trying not to attract them to the places we use? Should we be more aggressive in removing geese to other locations? As spring finally lets us return to enjoying a cherished green lakeshore whose amenity value grows with our own population, this is a conversation worth having.


An accidentally-truncated version of this was published in the Barrie Examiner as “Should we keep feeding ducks and geese at the waterfront?

Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is a director of Living Green and the Robert Schalkenbach Foundation

Keeping Ontario’s Roads Safe Act an important piece of legislation

Posted by – May 2, 2014

Although a spring election is expected in Ontario, it hasn’t been called yet, so the business of the Legislature goes on. One piece of business is Bill 173, also known as the Keeping Ontario’s Roads Safe Act. This bill, introduced by Infrastructure Minster Glen Murray, contains a number of measures specifically addressing the safety of active transportation. Some of these, in turn, are drawn from at least 4 separate private member’s bills that were introduced by members of all parties.

From Parkdale – High Park NDP MPP Cheri Dinovo comes a requirement that vehicles passing a bicycle leave at least a full meter of clearance. When I am cycling, I certainly don’t feel comfortable when a vehicle gets closer than that, so I think this change would be appreciated. It will also give drivers clear guidance as to how much room they should leave when passing.

Another improvement comes from a bill from Muskoka – Parry Sound PC MPP Norm Miller. It creates an explicit allowance to ride bikes on the paved shoulder of a divided roadway, as well as prohibiting vehicles (other than emergency responders or tow trucks) from driving there. This sort of has the effect of turning paved shoulders into de facto bike lanes, although a marked and signed bike lane, where possible, is even better.

There are also measures to require drivers to change lanes to pass a tow truck with lights on, suggested by Simcoe North PC MPP Garfield Dunlop, and increased fines for distracted driving, from Scarborough – Rouge River Liberal MPP Bas Balkissoon.

Another change for bikes is to explicitly allow a flashing red light at the rear, something that is cheap and effective but wasn’t anticipated when the old rules were written.

All in all, it seems like the measures in this act are sensible and warranted. Having lost my cousin Sam when his bike was struck by a vehicle in 2008, I heartily approve measures to prevent such tragedies in future. Unfortunately, politics too often get in the way.

In this case, it’s the politics of timing. Although an election is anticipated, the government has introduced a slew of new bills recently, and the Legislature simply won’t have time to study each in committee and go through all three required votes and associated debates. Some of them will certainly die on the order paper if we have a spring election. Even if we don’t, it’s not clear how many could get through the system before the Legislature rises for the summer.

Therefore, if you agree that improving road safety is a laudable goal and that this bill will help, I strongly urge you to contact your Member of Provincial Parliament, and the party leaders, and tell them to prioritize this bill. Urge them to vote for it rather than against, and not to delay it or play politics with it. Any sincere concerns should be addressed, but political gamesmanship is unacceptable. I expect the MPPs whose own measures were rolled into this will support it, but as Ms. Dinovo explained to me, they may not even get the chance if the government doesn’t keep this on the front burner.

So hold their feet to the fire! Given the ongoing low-level carnage associated with our roads, our own lives and those of our children are clearly at stake.


Published as my Root Issues column in the Barrie Examiner.

Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is a director of Living Green and the Robert Schalkenbach Foundation.

The other end of the organic pipe

Posted by – May 2, 2014

As Barrie slowly increases waste diversion, with measures like every-other-week trash collection, residents must keep up. And with spring weather finally approaching, composting resumes.

In fact, I know at least 4 ways to compost. First is the traditional backyard method. Growing up, my grandparents, early adopters of neighbourhood bottle recycling, also had two compost piles: an enclosed one at their Toronto house and an open pile at their farm. From them I learned not all garbage was created equal: some went into different containers and was even a valuable resource.

I follow that tradition at my own Barrie home, where a rotating composter improves the process greatly, providing rich fertilizer for our vegetable gardens. However, backyard composting has limitations. You need yard space for it, not an option for apartment-dwellers, and you must keep it mainly to fruit & vegetable peels, because meat scraps, bones, bread, dairy or oils draw unwanted pests and spoil the composting process. You must also mix or alternate wet, rich kitchen waste (“greens”) with drier carbon (“browns”) like shredded paper, dried grass clippings or raked leaves.

On the other hand, if you have the space, you can do a lot of composting in raised garden beds in a practice known as sheet composting or lasagnagardening (named for alternating layers of mulch) which I have found a wonderful improvement on traditional backyard gardening.

But other options are available, too. One is vermicomposting: red wiggler worms in a container under the sink who eat your diced food scraps and rapidly turn them into finished humus for your plants indoors, outdoors, or on a balcony. You can get worms and other supplies from in Bradford. Vermicomposting works at home, in an apartment, or as a class project to learn about worms, soil, the nutrient cycle, and waste reduction.

Just recently I discovered another method called bokashi composting. In your special anaerobic (airtight) container, you press down each layer of food scraps and sprinkle on top bokashi (a mixture of friendly microbes, bran and molasses) so instead of rotting, your scraps get pickled. After 1-2 weeks fermenting, you bury the compost under soil in a container or garden. Bokashi eliminates odourous gasses, flies, or animal attraction and can process a much wider variety of scraps, including meat, fat, cheese, bread, fish, even bones! It becomes a rich, organic amendment to revitalize your soil, improve water penetration, and increase plant growth and yields. An expert in nearby Utopia is hosting workshops where you can learn Bokashi hands-on; visit to sign up or access e-books or email Vera at

Last but certainly not least is Barrie’s Green Bin organics program. This most closely resembles the traditional out-of-sight, out-of-mind model of trash collection, accepting the widest variety of organics, including used tissues and paper towels and various used paper or cardboard food containers, as well as any kind of actual food waste. In fact, with the notable exception of diapers and pet waste, the green bin takes just about every kind of “stinky” trash – so luckily, it still goes away every week!

Within our own average family of four we produce almost nothing that ends up in the traditional garbage can, and our consumption patterns aren’t that far outside the norm. So if you’re finding your trash can is stinky or overflowing, you can probably solve it by better learning and practicing Barrie’s various diversion programs, including one or more kinds of composting.

Published as my Root Issues column in the Barrie Examiner under the title “Reduce garbage with innovative compost methods

Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is a director of Living Green and the Robert Schalkenbach Foundation

Friends of the Environment

Posted by – October 8, 2013

On Oct. 5, 2013 LG was happy to help out at TD’s Friends of the Environment tree planting at Lover’s Creek in Barrie. Dozens and dozens of energetic volunteers of all ages, from the very young, to the young at heart arrived to find that all the saplings had already been laid out in a rototilled area by City Staff under the leadership of Kevin Rankin.
In less than two hours the enthusiastic volunteers had transformed one of the meadows by Lover’s Creek into a fledgling woodland replete with a diversity of black willows, barberry bushes poplars, red pines, dog woods, and high bush cranberries.




after the cleanup



Tracy Eby, Buff and Shine

Posted by – September 12, 2013

When Tracy Eby returned to Canada from Taiwan, she knew she wanted to start an ecologically friendly business.

The result of her desire is Buff and Shine, the residential cleaning service that was recently nominated for the Barrie Business Green Community Award.

While working as a teacher in Taiwan, teaching English to executives from Acer and students at after-school programs, Eby saw firsthand how the Asian country reduced its environmental impact by encouraging recycling with financial incentives and discouraged disposable goods through the implementation of eco-taxes.

Shocked at how far behind Canada is when compared to the rest of the world on environmental issues, Eby decided to walk the walk, leading by example with her green business and educating clients along the way.

Apart from the emissions of her work vehicle, Buff and Shine is a zero waste business.

Eby uses a bagless vacuum cleaner, composting everything that her vacuum picks up. The recycled, brown paper towels she cleans with are recycled again after being used and her microfiber cleaning cloths are washed and used repeatedly.

“I’ve got cloths that I’ve been using continuously for two years now and they’re still in excellent shape,” she says.

While the bottles her cleaning products come in can be recycled, Eby refills them and keeps using them too. Refilling and reusing, rather than buying anew, helps limit her business’ and her clients’ ecological footprint. It also saves money for everyone involved.

Years ago, consumers had to pay high prices to buy environmentally friendly products.

Most people’s budgets only allowed for the unsafe chemical cleaners, so choosing to go green just wasn’t an option.

Those days are long gone. The products Eby uses are not only cheaper to buy, but they can be refilled for about $1. Some even last twice as long as the cleaning products found on grocery store shelves.

In her business, Eby uses professional cleaning products such as the Attitude and Dura Plus lines. She researches all the products she uses, making certain they are certified as ecologically friendly and carcinogen-free before she’ll even think of employing them.

“I’m not going to put something in the home of a family that’s going to hurt them. Breathing in second-hand cleaning fluid fumes is the same as breathing in second-hand smoke,” she says.

Eby samples everything in her own home, making sure the products get the job done right the first time. She has tested and discarded environmentally friendly products that smelled great but just didn’t work. All of the cleaning products that end up being used by Buff and Shine get the job done and are safe. Families with children and pets need not worry about them getting sick from touching or licking cleaned surfaces. Vacationers can safely clean their cottages and boats with them, because the products are safe for septic systems and won’t pollute lakes or streams.

While you won’t find the cleaners Buff and Shine uses in the aisles of your local grocery store, they are all available locally at Simcoe Hygiene Services.

You can purchase the exact same products Eby uses without having to worry about being a business, or needing some kind of card or membership. Thanks to Eby’s lobbying efforts, Simcoe Hygiene Services also refills empty cleaning bottles.

Through Buff and Shine, Tracy Eby reminds us that while we currently live in a world of disposable goods filled with toxic chemicals, we shouldn’t treat ourselves as disposable beings to be filled with toxic chemicals.

Using and reusing ecologically friendly products gets carcinogens out of our homes and reduces our impact on the environment, helping us live long healthy lives on a less polluted planet.

Aaron Reynolds is a freelance writer born and raised in Barrie. He is currently filling in for Donna Douglas, who returns in September.

Community Partners

Posted by – September 12, 2013

It’s a partnership in Barrie that’s making a huge difference for all of us.

And it’s all about trees.

Living Green Barrie, the City of Barrie, the Lake Simcoe Region Conservation Authority, businesses and ordinary volunteers like you and I: these are the community partners that make up the Urban Canopy Coalition.

And what a contribution they are making!

Gwen Petreman heads up this coalition and is quick to point out the tremendous benefits of the cost-free efforts of the partnership.

Trees and gardens make a tremendous difference in the health of our community.

The roots of a mature tree can absorb up to 57 000 gallons of water during a flash flood.. Their roots absorb chemicals and fruit trees stimulate activities for bees resulting in increased pollination.

Trees purify the air; they help to reduce the negative effects of climate change. They positively affect our respiratory and cardiovascular health.

Trees are a simple solution to the environmental ups and downs of drought and flooding caused by our uncertain climate these days. And planting native trees and plants make any project practically maintenance-free.

Planted in their natural environment, trees and plants need no maintenance.

Armed with all these reasons, volunteers have been planting trees and plants all over Barrie, protecting watercourses, stimulating water table retention and increasing the environmental health of our city.

For instance, the Urban Canopy folks planted over 1,000 native plants along the creeks at Queen’s Park this spring. They also planted oaks, spruce, pines and tamaracks along the Huronia Buffer located between McConkey and Bristow streets in April. Earlier that month they planted weeping willows and shrubs to aid in soil retention at Sunnidale Park.

Volunteers who help in these projects tend to be different groups for each planting. They connect with Gwen through Living Green’s facebook page at You can register as a volunteer on the website.

A month from today, Oct. 5, volunteers will begin work on the environmentally protected land at Loon Avenue in the south-end. They’ll plant native saplings. Gwen pointed out that at the Huronia project, Barrie Chiropractic sponsored the final planting of 1,000 trees. Its staff actually assisted in the planting, too.

She’s looking for any level of corporate sponsorship from area businesses, and of course is always signing up volunteers.

A retired teacher, Gwen has turned her hand to writing children’s books, usually tied into an environmental theme. She has self-published some of her books and sought excellent illustrators to make her words come alive. Her stories blend environmental realities to child empowerment for change.

Gwen, in keeping with her commitment to Living Green, is donating 10% of every book sale to the organization this fall.

She believes that children will be true game-changers in environmental efforts like the Urban Canopy Coalition. She’s always happy during a planting to see youngsters among the volunteers.

If contributing to the urban canopies in our community interests you, or contact Gwen at

Oct. 5 is the next volunteer planting.

Thanks, Gwen! Thanks, city forester Kevin Rankin. Thanks, Lake Simcoe Region Conservation Authority! And thanks, Aaron Reynolds, for excellent writing in my absence during August!

Climate Change and Insurance – Part One – personal lines

Posted by – September 11, 2013

With the debate on anthropogenic ( caused by humans) climate change long since settled, it is time to move on to other questions, specifically why we are not doing more about it. Climate change denial has been relegated to a few oil industry apologists and reactionary journalists, but for the most part the critical problem remains ignored, and we have yet to see the media coverage or the mass movement to renewable energy that we need.

The question is a simple one but the answers are complex, but part of the answer being that ordinary people do not believe that climate change is something that effects them right now. The truth however, is quite different. Not only is climate change a matter that each individual must claim some responsibility for, but it effects us now, in ways that most people will never even think about.

In this two part series, I will be reviewing the profound effect that our changing weather is having on your insurance, and the consequences that are to follow.

The three weeks around the end of June and the beginning of July was a terrible time for flooding in Canada. The flood in Alberta lasted days and flooded a large part of Calgary, as well as many smaller towns, and on July 8,2013, a sudden storm hit Toronto, unleashing a massive rainfall and flash floods that no one was prepared for. The total bill for these flood events? $270,000,000 for Intact Insurance alone.(1) Just to put this in perspective, the average Canadian home insurance premium is $840 per year, according to If we divide the property damages by the average home insurance premium, it would take the premiums of 321,429 homes just to pay for these two weather related events, before taking into account the other expenses such as commissions and administrative costs that also come out of these premiums.

We can never state with scientific certainty that one specific event was caused by climate change, however we can with absolute certainty say that changing weather patterns are tied to climate change, and that this change has been dramatic. As Insurance Bureau of Canada president Don Forgeron warned a business conference is St. John’s, “ our weather patterns have changed… the trend is unequivocal. The number of severe weather events is doubling every 5-10 years”. (3)

These changes are happening all over the globe, and in many different forms. We have seen several “storms of the centuries” hit the east coast, a dramatic increase in tornado activity across the Midwest, and many more sudden and severe storms in Ontario.

Insurance, as we all know, is a business, and like any other business, when the costs go up, the increase is passed on to the consumer. The thing that most of us are not aware of however, is that climate change is the number one driver of price increases in home insurance. Even in 2005 insurance expert Evan Mills stated that in regards to insurance premiums and losses, “Impacts of climate change are already manifesting and projected to become enormous over time (4). In 2006 The Association of British Insurers revealed that weather and climate change were already driving a 2-4% annual increase in insurable losses,) and Allianz, the largest insurance company in Europe, stated that climate change could be driving up insurance losses by 37% annually in less than a decade, meaning losses in excess of one trillion dollars per year. (5)

Most people’s initial reaction to this is to simply shrug it off with a “what else is new, insurance is going up”, but that type of reaction fails to grasp the scope of the problem. First of all, if your home insurance rates go up 20%, you are probably not going to sell your house, but you’re going to make sacrifices somewhere. If you have ever bought a house, think back to sitting in the lawyer’s office on closing. Before the deal is completed however, you must provide proof of insurance. To truly understand the effects that this can have on individuals, we’ll follow the breadcrumbs for a moment, to see where they lead. To do this, there are two critical things to remember, First of all, insurance companies are starting to minimize their exposure in many disaster prone areas. Allstate, for example, has cut the number of policies they hold in Florida from 1.2 million to less than 400,000 after recent hurricanes erased all the profit that the company had made in 75 years in that area. (4, Mills) We are starting to see these types of reactions in many different areas. Insurance companies refusing more policies, raising deductibles on certain types of coverage such as sewer back up, raising base premiums, and pulling out of certain areas. Second, the insurance industry is the foundation upon which our economic system is built ( this point will be described in more detail in part II of this article ).

When regular insurance companies raise rates and limit policies in certain areas, people pay more for insurance and are more often pushed to high risk insurance companies at a much higher price. When people are buying a home, what truly matters is the total cost of ownership, inclusive of taxes and insurance. This does more than just push the cost of owning a home higher, but also pushes many people out of the housing market all together. More and more people cannot afford the price of insurance in addition to their mortgage payments, and this problem is going to become a bigger over time.

It will not be long before all these factors start to come together to cause some very predictable and devastating economic results. Let’s look at a hypothetical example along the gulf coast of the US. Say a major city in the area, St Petersburg FL, or Mobile Alabama, gets hit by a bad tropical storm this year, causing 10’s of millions of dollars in insurable losses, and then next year, gets hit by a Hurricane. Insurance companies begin to cut their losses and pull out, leaving high risk insurance companies to pick up the slack. Suddenly insurance rates are $200 per month for most people, instead of $75, some people get behind on their mortgages, desperate to pay their insurance bills, while others cancel their insurance, leaving them one storm away from losing everything. As more people move out, fewer people move in, and housing prices are starting to drop while some of the big employers pick up and move to safer ground. After all, they are subject to higher insurance rates as well, plus the interruptions to their business. This is a recipe for complete financial collapse, and mass exodus ensues, leaving a shell of a city with little hope for improvement. As these people look for other places, many will no longer be able to buy a home, and a large influx of people can lead to higher unemployment rates at the new location, maybe temporarily, maybe not.

Does this sound a little far-fetched? Between the writing of the first draft of this article and the version you are reading now, a few things have changed. First of all, one the biggest insurance companies in Canada announced sweeping changes to their home insurance coverage. They have increased deductibles, greatly expanded the areas in which they will not provide sewer back up coverage, and reduced potential discounts for their customers. In Alberta, it is rumoured that property policy owners should expect 30%-60% increases in their property insurance rates this year alone.

Climate change is not just an environmental issue, but also an economic issue, as well as a social justice issue in that its effect on the poor and middle class will be far greater than on the rich, at least initially. Insurance is just one way that climate change is effecting each one of us, right now.


1) The Toronto Star, Saturday July 27th,2013 “Alberta cost property insurer Intact Insurance 270 million.


3) Maclean’s magazine, June 25th, 2013,’s-Future-climate-change-expert-predicts.html

4) Dr. Evan Mills, 2005, “responding to climate change, an Insurance Industry perspective”,

5) On Environmental Science and Technology Online News, April 19,2008,


Written by Greg Groen, R.I.B.O.

Ontario Trillium Federation

Ontario Trillium Federation