In the late 19th century, a public works program was started to straighten the lower part of the Don River south of the Winchester Street bridge. The project was called the Don Improvement Project. The goal of the project was to alleviate floods on the lower Don that were periodically washing out bridges. It was also done to create additional wharf space for the Toronto harbour. When it was completed, the river was directed south into Ashbridge's Bay.
At the time Ashbridge's Bay was still a lacustrine marsh. It was heavily polluted by local industry. The water from the river was diverted into the bay with the hope that it would flush the bay of the poor water. However the flow of water introduced raw sewage in the river into the bay. The bay water remained stagnant and was increasingly becoming a serious health risk. The Keating Channel was proposed as a method of directing the dirty river water into the harbour thus dispersing it more rapidly.
Initially the channel was planned to go from the northeast corner of the inner harbour east towards Leslie Street and join up with the Coatsworth Cut. However, the portion east of the Don River was never completed and it was closed in 1916. The channel was completed in 1922 after 8 years of construction. The completed channel now runs from the harbour east to the mouth of the river, a distance of about 800 metres.
Today it is flanked on the north by the elevated Gardiner Expressway and Lakeshore Boulevard East. The south side is occupied by a city works yard and the Keating Channel Pub. At the west end Cherry Street crosses the channel over a single sided drawbridge rarely used by ships. At the east end is the start of the Don Valley Parkway.
In the 1940s the watershed further up the Don River became more urbanized. This caused an increasing amount of silt to flow down the river. The silt ends up collecting in the channel where there is very little water flow. Since that time, the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority (TRCA) has been dredging the channel. The dredgeate material is barged out to the Leslie Street Spit where it is dumped in a containment area specially built for this purpose. In 2005, the annual amount of silt dredged was about 35,000 cubic metres. The containment area has the capacity to take 50 years of Don River dredgeate
The channel's impact on the Don River is varied. Both sides of the channel are lined with concrete dock wall which creates a barrier and provides little habitat for fish and other water dwelling creatures. The Don is home to about 21 species of fish. Only about four or five species can be found near the mouth. This is partly due to poor water quality but also due to lack of habitat. The dock wall continues, mostly unbroken north to Riverdale Park. In contrast the Humber River which has a natural mouth is home to about 44 species.
Another problem affecting the channel is floating debris that is washed down the Don. Mostly logs and dead wood, there is also an assortment of garbage that collects in the channel. The TRCA corrals this material with a boom across the channel. There can be quite a bit of flotsam especially after a big storm.
On the north side of the channel a slight bend in Lakeshore Boulevard has created a narrow open space. The Task Force to Bring Back the Don decided to plant this area in the 1998. They planted Staghorn Sumac (Rhus typhina), Sandbar Willow (Salix exigua), and Red Osier Dogwood (Cornus stolonifera). Despite poor soil conditions, the willow and the hardy sumac have thrived. These days it looks like a long narrow glade of small trees and shrubs, a small oasis amongst the blight of concrete and asphalt.
Another small green space at the eastern end was also planned for restoration but the project was abandoned after one planting. There was also a proposal to remove part of the dock wall to improve fish habitat. Both of these projects were suspended when it became apparent that a larger project would be starting soon.
In 1999, the three levels of government announced a large project to revitalize Toronto's waterfront. Among the four initial projects was a plan to restore the mouth of the Don to a more natural outlet.
In 2005, an environmental assessment was initiated to investigate options to restore the original mouth of the Don. Some of the options being considered would fill in the Keating Channel and direct the Don River through a new channel just north of Lakeshore Boulevard or straight south to link up with the shipping channel to the south. The environmental assessment process is scheduled to last until 2007.
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