Kettle Creek: A Story of Ecological Restoration

An article by Dr. John Bacher published at

One of Ontario’s smallest conservation authorities in terms of area, Kettle Creek, located in Elgin County around the city of St. Thomas, tells a vivid story of a landscape that has gone from being ruined to being recovered over roughly the last century. While many sites in southern Ontario witnessed this type of transformation during this period, Kettle Creek’s story is unique in terms of the dramatic changes it experienced in undergoing this transition.

The very name of the stream whose watershed is the basis for the city of St. Thomas, the principal urban centre in Elgin County, reflects the ecological damage that much of southern Ontario suffered as the nineteenth century progressed. Kettle Creek’s name is taken from the large kettle pots in which wood was turned into ashes for soap making. This was one of the strongest driving forces behind deforestation in southern Ontario, where farmers would use the quick cash they could generate from selling the ashes from incinerated forests to pay for their initial costs. The burning of the forest to make soap ashes was commented upon by Harold Zavitz, a relative of the long-serving Provincial Forester of Ontario, Edmund Zavitz. Harold’s branch of the family had moved to southwestern Ontario, specifically around the community of Coldspring which is close to St. Thomas, in the early 1800s. Harold Zavitz observed that the burning of 60 giant maple trees for a single bag of potash amounted to a horrific “burnt offering to agriculture.” 45

20151125 Forestry
Photo taken in 1899 of a 19th century Ontario logging bee. Events like this, witnessed and recorded with dismay by the Zavitz family, led to the catastrophic deforestation of the Kettle Creek watershed. Published with permission of Ed Borczon.

Forest cover in southern Ontario had plunged to around five per cent by the end of the First World War, and the consequences of this wanton deforestation emerged in many forms, including massive flooding. As with much of southwestern Ontario, the wakeup call for the area around St. Thomas was the great flood of 1883, sparked by heavy rains in a deforested landscape, which also brought death and destruction to the nearby city of London, Ontario. In St. Thomas a number of bridges along Kettle Creek were swept away in the 1883 disaster, and a wash out took place on a train track four miles north of Port Stanley. Lives were saved by the heroism of a farmer who used a red flag to stop a train headed from London. Without his timely intervention, the train would have been doomed to fall into Kettle Creek because of a destroyed bridge.

As with other communities in deforested regions of Ontario, flooding had become worse in the Kettle Creek watershed as forest cover was removed. In 1890 a deluge caused culverts and bridges to be “washed away in all directions.” In 1909 another calamity hit St. Thomas when a flood surrounded “almost every dwelling in the flats”. According to a contemporary source, the raging waters carried “off wagons and other movable objects.”46

Forest cover in the Kettle Creek reached its low point in 1919, then it slowly began to increase as a result of the policies of the recently elected provincial government headed by Premier E.C. Drury. It was during Drury’s reign in office that public programs aimed at promoting tree planting began to have a positive impact on southern Ontario’s landscape. They included projects which saw farmers begin to re-establish forests on part of their lands. In the area of Kettle Creek, such tree planting efforts initially occurred on a total of 29 properties comprising roughly 260 acres; the seedling stock came from government tree nurseries, such as the one in nearby St. Williams. In 1928 a reforestation project was undertaken to protect the St. Thomas waterworks, which eventually formed the Kettle Creek Conservation Authority’s Dalewood Conservation Area. 47

After 1933, Edmund Zavitz’s career focused more directly on reforestation in southern Ontario. Responsibility for the area in most dire need of attention, namely southwestern Ontario, was assigned to his distant cousin, Harold Zavitz. Ultimately, Harold’s most notable achievement in the Kettle Creek watershed was the creation of the McKay Tract of the Elgin County Forest. 48

Harold Zavitz’s initial efforts to restore forest cover through co-operative programs with farmers and the county government had limited results in the Kettle Creek area. His experience was similar to the glacial pace at which progress was made in other watersheds in southwestern Ontario before the passage of Ontario’s Conservation Authorities Act in 1946. 49 In the Kettle Creek watershed there was considerable resistance to the establishment of a conservation authority since it was two decades before the legislation had an impact here. What proved critical in bringing about a change in attitudes were two severe floods. The first took place in 1947 when many families in a valley west of St. Thomas had to be evacuated, and hundreds of basements were flooded in the process. Six years later another flood sent water pouring into lower levels of the newly built St. Thomas hospital. 50

One of Harold Zavitz’s main tasks in the 1950s, as with other foresters employed by the Department of Lands and Forests in southern Ontario, was to try to get the cattle out of the woods. However, the farming community proved to be one obstacle in this endeavour. When the Kettle Creek Conservation Authority was established in 1966, observers noted the lack of success that had been heretofore achieved in this regard. Some 351 acres were found in its survey to be “wooded pasture”, so degraded as to “no longer be classed as a woodlot.” Cattle grazing was also devastating the forest around the municipal water supply. This created 110 serious gully erosion cuts in the forest. 51

While deforestation was also contributing to pollution by sediment, there were numerous other sources of pollution in Kettle Creek that were turning it into a dead zone. The e-coli membrane filter count was on a scale comparable to the Walkerton disaster of 170,000 per one million caused by livestock. Problems were also caused by the poorly operated sewage treatment plant in St. Thomas, which discharged massive amounts of carbon into Kettle Creek. The bed of the creek below the treatment plant was covered by life destroying black mud that killed all fish life from St. Thomas to Lake Erie. The creek was also fouled by a refuse dump, which when it rained poured leachate directly into the stream. During heavy rains refuse frequently floated down the river. 52

The creation of the Kettle Creek Conservation Authority in the mid-1960s was crucial to achieving success in addressing all these problems. This process has been aided by the passage of other legislation, including tree protection by-laws. Since 1966 local forest cover has increased from 10.8% to 15% with the biggest improvement coming in the lower part of the watershed. In contrast to much of southwestern Ontario, however, the forest cover in the Authority’s other two sub-watersheds is improving. In addition, livestock grazing in forests has faded into history. Most importantly, the lower third of the watershed has the best riparian cover (48.5%, or roughly double the rest of the watershed), and also the best overall forest cover (19.6 %). This is crucial to addressing the serious problem of phosphorous discharges into Lake Erie, which degrades it by contributing to the creation of massive algae blooms. 53

What is most remarkable has been the resurrection of Kettle Creek in the several miles downstream from St. Thomas to Lake Erie. As predicted in the 1966 founding survey, the cleaning up of pollution did result in trout entering it from Lake Erie. Moreover, the creek is recovering the characteristics of a healthy warm water stream, with game fish such as panfish, large, rock and small mouth bass, and catfish returning. On one tributary, Mill Creek, a mottled sculpin was recently identified as a sign that the tributary is recovering to cold water conditions. 54 More recently, the Kettle Creek Conservation Authority has undertaken an aggressive co-operative tree planting program with private owners, with a million trees at 25 cents being distributed in the past decade. The biggest afforestation achievement has been the planting of 500 acres around the Lake Whittaker Conservation Area, which protects the headwaters of Kettle Creek. 55

The importance of Kettle’s Creek’s rehabilitation is part of the broader effort at ecological recovery from deforestation in southern Ontario south of the Canadian Shield. What highlights its significance is the consequences of the absence of an effort of a similar magnitude on the watersheds in the United States that flow into Lake Erie. Although roughly comparable in terms of their contribution to lake flows, uncorrected problems of deforestation have made the United States, particularly the Maumee watershed, the major source of phosphorous loadings in Lake Erie. 56



45 Harold Zavitz, A History of the Lake Forest District, Ontario Department of Lands and Forests, p.8. Unless otherwise noted, the information used in this paper is drawn from this source and Ontario Department of Energy and Resources, Kettle Creek Conservation Authority Survey” (Toronto, 1967).

46 Ontario Department of Energy and Resources, “Kettle Creek Conservation Authority Survey, Water” (Toronto, 1967), p. 7.

47 Ibid., 8.

48 Ontario Department of Energy and Resources, “Kettle Creek Conservation Authority Survey, Land, Forest, Habitat,”

(Toronto, 1968), 21.

49 Ibid., 34.

50 Ontario Department of Energy and Resources, op. cit. “Water”, p 8.

51 Ontario Department of Energy and Resources, op .cit. “Land, Forest, Habitat,” 33-34.

52 Ibid., 6-8.

53 Kettle Creek Conservation Authority website, accessed October 12, 2015, Watershed Report Card.

54 Kettle Creek Conservation Authority website, accessed October 12, 2015, Habitat

55Kettle Creek Conservation Authority website, accessed October 12. 2015, Lake Whitaker Conservation Area.

56 International Joint Commission, A Balanced Diet For Lake Erie: Reducing Phosphorous Loading and Harmful Algal Blooms. 2014.



Zavitz, Harold. A History of the Lake Forest District, Ontario Department of Lands and Forests.

Ontario Department of Energy and Resources, “Kettle Creek Conservation Authority Survey.” Toronto, 1967.

“Kettle Creek Conservation Authority” (accessed October 12, 2015).

International Joint Commission, A Balanced Diet For Lake Erie: Reducing Phosphorous Loading and Harmful Algal Blooms. 2014.



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