A History of Pollution and Neglect
For decades, Toronto’s Don River was a dumping ground for tanneries, distilleries, and abattoirs. Raw sewage was pumped directly into the river in the 1860s, and dead livestock could be found drifting in the murky water. The river was pronounced dead in 1969, after a cholera scare and bouts of malaria.
A funeral procession of environmental activists wound through the city, with mourners gathering at the polluted banks of the river to pay their final respects.
The Don River’s story is a testament to the power of advocacy and investment in environmental restoration. From a once-dead river filled with pollution and neglect, the Don River is now on the path to becoming a thriving ecosystem once again.
Through grassroots advocacy efforts and restoration projects, the river is now home to a variety of wildlife and new wetlands. The city’s investment in improving the river’s water quality, including new tunnels to reroute untreated sewage, is a crucial step towards a future where the river is swimmable and its fish are healthy.
The Don River’s comeback is a reminder that with dedication and investment, even the most polluted and neglected environments can be restored to their former glory.
Grassroots Advocacy and Restoration Efforts
Despite the river’s grim history, a small group of citizens refused to give up on it.
John Wilson, a key figure in the Task Force to Bring Back the Don, had a personal connection to the river and wanted to create a better community for his children.
“I looked around at this and realized we could do better,” he said.
The group restored wetlands, cleaned its banks, and reduced the city’s use of road salt, which invariably flowed into the river each winter.
Investment and Restoration for the Future
Now, after more than half a century, the Don River is roaring back to life. Wildlife is returning to areas that were once heavily industrialized.
Waterfront Toronto is leading a restoration project that will add new wetlands and habitat in a space that was once a post-industrial wasteland. During construction, beaver, mink, bald eagles, deer, and coyote have been spotted in the area.
The city is also investing billions to improve the river’s water quality, including new tunnels to route untreated sewage away from the river.
According to Sameer Dhalla, director of development and engineering services at the Toronto Regional Conservation Authority, “We want to see the Don River swimmable. We want to see that the fish are healthy and even edible.”
The rerouting of sewage will be “revolutionary” for a river pushed to its limits, said Jennifer Bonnell, an associate professor of history at Toronto’s York University.