We got a late start, having stayed until after noon, writing editing and posting. Our plan was to follow “the 401” a four-lane expressway that traces a straight line through Ontario between the Canadian capital of Ottawa and Toronto, the nation’s largest city, before. From there, it continues in a beeline line to the U.S. border at Windsor, the sister city of Detroit.
The straightness is no accident. In sequence, the road parallels the upper St. Lawrence River, the straight northern shore of Lake Ontario, and the straight northern shore of Lake Erie. All are aligned by an ancient rift in the crust where a former billion-year-old mountain range called the Grenville meets the two-billion-year range called the Penokian.
Very few lakes, streams, and ponds were visible from the road. Instead, we were treated to countless views of road cuts into what geologists call the "platform." This term refers to that stable part of the continent where ancient, highly deformed and fully cooked basement rocks measuring billions of years old are draped by generally flat-lying sedimentary rocks less than half a billion years old. We saw mostly layers of limestone, sandstone, and shale rising and falling above and below the ditches until they disappeared beneath glacial deposits.
The strongest and most prominent layers are made of a hardened version of limestone called dolomite. One thick stratum of this rock called the Niagara Dolomite is strong enough to hold up as a north-facing escarpment several hundred feet high extending from New York State to Wisconsin. The majestic Niagara Falls occurs where the Niagara River, which carries the north-flowing drainage of Lake Erie, falls off the edge of the escarpment and plunges down to erode the softer rocks below the level of Lake Ontario. If and when the falls migrates back far enough, Lake Erie will shrink to a fraction of its present size. Conceivably, one by one of the Great Lakes could fall to the level of the sea.
Slab of dolomite from the platform north of Lake Erie. This specimen was between Port Bruce and Port Stanley.
Dolomite is a carbonate containing magnesium in addition to calcium. A carbonate is any common mineral containing carbon and oxygen, both of which were extracted from the atmosphere. Such rocks are an important, and largely overlooked part of the earth’s carbon cycle.
The vast majority of earth’s carbon exists not in the atmosphere, where we worry about it today, but in two kinds of sedimentary rocks. Most familiar are those containing organic matter such as coal, oil shale, tar sands, petroleum, and natural gas, which we burn as fossil fuels. Combustion returns this ancient carbon back to the atmosphere as carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas. Even more abundant than fossil fuels are lime-rich rocks, most of which were precipitated in the sea by marine plankton, reef organisms like corals and sponges, and shells such as oysters and clams. These lime rich rocks are the ones we saw for hundreds of kilometers (that's how they measure road distance in Canada) along our route.
When lime-rich rocks occur near the surface and soaked by the water cycle, they dissolve back into carbon dioxide and elements like calcium, magnesium, sodium, potassium, manganese, and iron. Most of this action takes place within the dark brown topsoil, where thin films of water cling to mineral particles and plant remains being decomposed by oxygen-loving bacteria. These microbes release carbon dioxide which, when dissolved in soil water, forms carbonic acid, the main agent responsible for the chemical weathering. The dissolved by-products of this process are what make water “hard.”
Countless farms border the edge of Route 401 through the small cities of Kingston, Belleville, Oshawa, Toronto, Kichner, London, Chatham and Windsor, which are arranged like dots in an evenly spaced row The farms are here because the local bedrock combined with the rainfall regime provides the dissolved minerals needed for agricultural plants.
Under natural conditions, soaking rains and snowmelt flush some of this mineral-rich water downward to the groundwater table. There it gets even harder as it travels through pore spaces in sand and gravel, and fractures within rock.
Having skipped breakfast and lunch, we made an early afternoon stop in Belleville for a sandwich. The only choice was Subway. We pulled in behind a kids group, probably a summer camp of some sort. Luckily, I stood in line behind a couple willing to talk about water with a stranger: Jason, a husky, no-nonsense type of guy in his late 20s, and Irene, his wife, who works in the health care field. Her big concern was water contamination, especially for their child, who is now a toddler.
Water tanks and reverse osmosis purifier are commonly sold throughout this area. This example is from the Water Depot, in Woodstock, Ontario.
During the first seven months, this baby only bottled water that had been boiled as an extra precaution. Jason main concern was his observation that the area has an unusually high incidence of prostate, bowel, and testicular cancers. He’s especially concerned about his father, who refuses to drink anything but tap water, reluctant to pay good money for that which flows freely from the tap and is free for the taking.
The water is indeed free of charge, at least after taxes. But so are the naturally dissolved minerals and pollutants that come with it. Jason has had their water tested. It’s got a hardness of about 25 milligrams per liter, which fairly high, is high in iron and low in sulfur
Arsenic and radon are the only natural carcinogens that would likely find their way into the groundwater system are around here, and only as local anomalies. Every other contaminant likely comes from synthetic chemicals applied to the land for agriculture or the wood products industry. In open forest and farm country such as this, the main culprits are fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides sprayed to maximize productivity. The list of chemicals and product brand names is a long one.
People here in inland Ontario are getting scared because they know they are vulnerable. Though surrounded by Great Lakes, this is a land of generally flat landscapes, very few natural ponds, even fewer lakes, no deep valleys and only small rivers. The only widely available source of potable water large enough for municipalities comes from fractured-rock aquifers reached by rock drilling. And unfortunately, most of this groundwater was recharged by rain and snowmelt that passed downward through the soils of chemically tainted farms. Jason has sprayed chemicals on fields himself when he worked the family farm. He is also suspicious of water companies, which he thinks might be making millions by exploiting people’s fears.
When people dip water out of a stream or a pond, they have a pretty good idea of where it comes from. Ground water is different. For most people, its source is a mystery, one that contributes to their anxiety about pollution.
Having survived the stop-and-go traffic around Toronto, we decided to exit and travel the last 30 miles (45 kilometers here) to our evening destination on a back road. The exit sent me into a spiral ending in a stop sign for Route 15, which was not on my map. There was no sign for Route 2, which is there I thought I was. After being lost for a while, I pulled off the road to inquire at a gas station about my location. Behind me was a store called the Water Depot, so I went there instead.
One of 21 franchises of this clean-water retailer, based out of Barrie, Ontario.
I must have been fated to meet its owners, Gary & Jeannette Rebry, who posed for pictures, offered us a tour, and referred us to the place we ended up staying.
Gary and Jeanette, owners of the Woodstock franchise of Water Depot.
The Water Depot is a commercial franchise, no different in business model from most chain motels and restaurants. The originator of this water company, located in Barrie, Ontario, may have been the millionaire Jason talked about, the one who had been a farmer before deciding to sell water from his farm instead. According to Gary, there are twenty one Water Depot franchises, most of which supply water to the Toronto area. His main source of income is the steady stream of customers who arrive with one or more empty five-gallon jugs and leave with full ones. Though the price varies, it’s now slightly less than $3 a jug, with discounts for frequent fillers.
People buy water for many reasons. Some like the taste, some prefer the way soap works with soft water, some are allergic to chlorine, some have cardiac or diabetic issues involving their sodium and salt balance, and some go simply to visit with two of the most helpful and friendly folks I’ve met so far on my trip. But the reason most customers go is because they are afraid. They don’t trust city water.
The water Gary and Jeanette sell has been on quite a journey even before reaching their retail store. It begins with precipitation either soaking through the "coffee filter" of agricultural soil, or running off in lazy streams that are generally avoided as water supplies except for livestock and irrigation because they are polluted by chemicals and fecal bacteria. Next, the water moves downward, picking up chemical contaminants and dissolved minerals on the way. When that water reaches the saturated zone, it moves generally sideways through rock fractures, picking up more dissolved minerals and possibly other contaminants from landfill leachate, malfunctioning septic systems, and leaking fuel tanks. Zones where rock fractures are large, common and well-integrated are the preferred target sites for water-supply wells. Finally, the city of Woodstock pumps that water up from the aquifers, tests it to make sure it isn’t toxic, treats it with a small dose of chlorine to prevent bacterial contamination, and mechanically distributes it through pipes to homes and businesses.
Every customer, including the Water Depot, is supplied from the same treated tap water. What Gary and Jeanette do to improve it is test the water twice a day, take out the chlorine that the city put in, soften it by taking out excess dissolved minerals, and perform reverse osmosis to take out any remaining contaminants.
The customers can buy their own equipment at the store if they want, but most prefer to avoid the capital expense.
Remember Poland Spring in Maine, which we explored on the first day of this road trip? The water at their original “source,” may indeed be better than what the tap water the City of Woodstock supplies its residents. But the business model of the Water Depot so much friendlier with respect to social and environmental consequences.
Poland Spring water is little more than a trademark-protected historic label for what is otherwise normal aquifer water sold by a multi-national corporation in disposable plastic bottles that are shipped by petroleum-burning, exhaust-emitting trucks. Water Depot, on the other hand, is owned by a nice, Chamber-of-Commerce-type couple that lives and work in the community they serve. The same is true for the whole company, which serves only the Province of Ontario, and is thus more accountable to provincial, as well as marketplace incentives.
Just before leaving, Jeannette helped me find the phone number for the Elm Hurst Inn in nearby Ingersoll. We decided to spend the night there. It’s a converted Victorian mansion, built by James Harris, who pioneered the large scale commercial manufacturing of cheese in Ontario. Cheese, of course, comes from milk, which is mostly water. This became quite clear near the end of our trip, when driving through the prairie, where watering is the biggest problem with their management.
The Elm Hurst Inn, Ingersoll, Ontario, the house that cheese built.
Our waitress at dinner, Erin was remarkably informed about local water. She’s an Honors Chemistry major at Western Ontario University in nearby Kitchner. Her water story involved an Ohio-based mining company, whose blasting and pumping at a local limestone quarry has – she believed -- permanently changed the local groundwater flow regime. Farmers who used to pump water from their own wells must now hook up to expensive public sources. Details about the Carmeuse Corporation’s activities in Dutton County, Ontario have been extensively reported in the local newspaper, the London Free Press.
I asked her for an up and down side to fresh water. When she answered, I realized a pattern had developed. Concerns about water usually popped into their heads faster than the positive experiences. Erin is worried that the levels of the Great Lakes had been low for about fifteen years and would stay that way forever, compromising existing shoreline facilities. We had not yet seen one on our trip, but would do so the next day. Her happy thoughts about fresh water were memories of being a teenager and swimming in an abandoned quarry. “The water was purple,” she said, “probably because of the bacteria.”
Her comment reminded me of a seldom known fact about freshwater. Across the continent, teenagers are drawn to abandoned quarries because they can congregate alone without fear of intrusion. It also made me wonder about the veracity of the information I was getting, for I have yet to see purple water in nature.
Statue from Elm Hurst Inn, Ingersoll, Ontario.
Marble, used for carving statues, is composed of calcium carbonate, the same stuff from the rocks of roadside southern Ontario are made. Material scientists are getting so good at fake marble that they use plastic instead.
What a lovely place to stay.