Ewen Van Wagner, with a northern pike caught on Lake St. Clair at the mouth of Thames River in October. Handout
One of the main features of this region is the historic Thames River, often overlooked but an important transportation route for First Nations and early settlers for many years.
It played an important role during the War of 1812, as American soldiers came up the river from Fort Pontchartrain at present-day Detroit, fighting the British and ultimately killing the legendary Shawnee Chief Tecumseh on the Thames River just east of Chatham.
Rivers have always been great resources for people, be it as a source of water, gathering foods, or fishing and hunting. The Thames was also the terminus for the Underground Railway for American slaves prior to the American Civil War. It remains the agricultural heartland of Eastern Canada to this day.
In 2000, the Thames River was named a Historic Canadian River, along with 11 other rivers in Ontario.
Today the Thames is used more for recreational purposes, including paddling, boating and fishing. Locally, there are several boat launches at Big Bend Conservation Area near Warsdsville, Thames Grove in Chatham, Jeannette’s Creek and Lighthouse Cove.
A few weeks ago, my son and I launched our boat at Jeannette’s Creek, along with about 100 other people, as everyone was after the prized muskie that congregate at the mouth of the river during the fall, chasing bait fish called gizzard shad.
The high number of anglers here and at Lighthouse Cove shows how a natural resource can benefit the local economy by locals and visitors purchasing fuel, food, accommodations and gear. The now annual bass tournament held at Mitchell’s Bay each summer is another fine example.
The Thames River is a complex system that can flood in several different ways. It may be from your typical spring snowmelt event, just really heavy rains, or even ice jams.
If a flood event starts upstream of the City of London, those flows can take three days to reach Chatham. Chatham can flood from the Thames River itself or from Indian and McGregor creeks. Lower Thames Valley Conservation Authority staff monitor these conditions and operate the McGregor Creek Diversion Channel, and the dams on Creek Road and Tecumseh Park accordingly, either diverting water around the city, or blocking off the Thames River and pumping out of McGregor Creek to protect the south side of Chatham from flooding.
This was a $16.3-million project back in 1990 and has since been quite effective for flood prevention that has saved Chatham millions of dollars in flood damage.
Today, the Thames has its share of issues, including excess nutrients, sediment and contaminant loading that have degraded this habitat. This, combined with habitat alteration or loss and competition from invasive species, has put many aquatic species at risk. Of 35 freshwater mussel species, at least 13 are at risk (e.g. threehorn wartyback) and six are likely lost from the lower Thames River (e.g. snuffbox).
Of 94 fish species, at least 11, including several species of darters and redhorse, are at risk, with one, the gravel chub, no longer found anywhere in Canada.
Currently, the Lower Thames Valley Conservation Authority is partnering with Fisheries and Oceans Canada to study these species and to improve their habitat by restoring terrestrial habitat corridors adjacent to water bodies to help filter nutrients, sediments and contaminants before it enters these aquatic habitats.
It is not just about saving individual species, it’s about improving our waterways and restoring the health of a living ecosystem that humans have been using for hundreds of years and still rely on today and into the future.
Due to its sheer size – it drains more than 5,800 square kilometres – the Thames is the only river shared by two conservation authorities – the Upper Thames and the Lower Thames Valley.
In the Lower Thames Valley Conservation Authority watershed west of London, there are four Indigenous communities – Chippewas of the Thames First Nation, Oneida Nation of the Thames, Delaware Nation at Moraviantown and the Munsee Delaware Nation. The Lower Thames Valley Conservation Authority works closely with all these nations and have done some great projects that benefit the whole river system.
Another active group that is striving to bring awareness around our water use is the Chatham Sunrise Rotary Club. Through their program, Clean Water for Living, volunteer John Lawrence has been doing a great job promoting best management practices for urban and rural citizens.
At a recent Chatham-Kent council meeting, Coun. Anthony Ceccacci made a motion to plant more trees in our region. This is a positive step in the right direction, as we know trees and other natural restoration work will only help protect the Thames River, and restore this valuable resource by keeping the soil on the land.
Randall Van Wagner is manager of conservation lands and services with the Lower Thames Valley Conservation Authority, and has worked in the natural resource management field for more than 20 years.