Our Harbour

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Hamilton Clean Harbour Program

Cootes Paradise Fishway
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Cootes Paradise Fishway

When the first Europeans arrived in what would become Hamilton, Cootes Paradise was a dense 250-hectare marsh and one of the most important fish nurseries and migratory bird staging areas on the Great Lakes. As communities grew around Cootes Paradise, however, urban and rural runoff began to erode water quality. The shipping-related control of water levels in Lake Ontario also had a negative impact on Cootes Paradise, as did invasive[1] fish species, chief among them, carp.

Fast-growing carp were introduced to Hamilton Harbour in the late 1800s to enrich local commercial fisheries. By the 1930s, this non-native species with its bottom-feeding and spawning activities had begun uprooting and crushing aquatic plants in Cootes Paradise while also stirring up sediment and creating less-than-ideal conditions for aquatic vegetation.

By the 1980s, almost none of the original Cootes Paradise wetland remained. Fish and bird habitat had been replaced by turbid[2] open water.  It was clear that, among other changes, carp needed to be kept out of Cootes.

Grindstone Creek, the first entrance for carp, was closed with a simple but inventive Christmas tree barrier. Made from hundreds of trees, the barrier allows for the movement of water and small fish, but excludes adult carp. 

The second carp doorway to Cootes required a higher-technology solution. The Cootes Paradise Fishway opened in 1997 at the mouth of the Desjardins Canal. The first two-way fish barrier on the Great Lakes, the Fishway keeps destructive carp out of the fragile marsh while allowing smaller native species to move naturally. Since the opening of the Fishway, the Cootes Paradise carp population has dropped by 95%, from approximately 70,000 to less than 1,000 adults.

The exclusion of carp has allowed the marsh to begin its recovery. Native species are being replanted every year. This, in turn, recreates fish, bird and amphibian habitat. The signature moment of the restoration process was the return of bald eagles to Cootes in 2008 and, in 2013, the first hatched eaglets on the Canadian shoreline of Lake Ontario in more than half a century.

The Royal Botanical Gardens (RBG) manages the Fishway which was a joint project supported by the RBG, the City of Hamilton, the Ontario Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change, ArcelorMittal Dofasco, the Hamilton Harbour Remedial Action Plan office, the Bay Area Restoration Council, the City of Burlington and private donors.

Windermere Basin Restoration
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Hamilton Clean Harbour Program - Windermere Basin Project. Arial photo of the Windermere Basin site.

Hamilton’s industrial sector has long dominated the southeast corner of Hamilton Harbour where Windermere Basin has spent decades trapped between industrial lands and the Queen Elizabeth Way, with the Hamilton Beach and Parkview West neighbourhoods nearby. Originally a wetland and mud flat at the mouth of Red Hill Creek, the basin served as a natural filter for the creek water flowing into the harbour and was an important breeding and migratory ground for as many as 26 species of birds.

In the 1950s, however, Windermere Basin was converted into a sediment trap to reduce the need for dredging[3] the areas around Piers 24 and 25. The plan was successful. The basin trapped sediment, but it collected a significant amount of pollution as well.

In 1992, Windermere Basin was identified by the Hamilton Harbour Remedial Action Plan as a potential target for rehabilitation and by 1997, the City of Hamilton had begun exploring options. A detailed plan for restoring Windermere Basin was completed in 2005. The bulk of the work took place in 2011 and 2012 and in the years since, nature has taken control of the project. The result is a 13-hectare developing wetland that returns the area to something resembling its pre-industrial ecosystem. A berm separates the basin from the outflow of Red Hill Creek, allowing for improved water quality and habitat regeneration in an area that now includes fish and wildlife habitat along with parkland and a walking trail with access from Eastport Drive. Shortly after the restoration work was complete, the rare black crowned night heron began nesting in the trees surrounding the basin.

With a budget of $20.5 million funded by the City of Hamilton in partnership with the provincial and federal governments, the Windermere Basin restoration was one of North America’s most ambitious wetland restoration projects. This investment provided not only obvious ecological and social benefits, but important economic outcomes as well. Returning the basin to a more natural condition saved millions of dollars in dredging costs. Ultimately, the project transformed an open body of water with limited biodiversity into a healthy and diverse Great Lakes coastal wetland that provides aesthetic appeal, recreation opportunities and natural habitat.

Randle Reef
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Hamilton Clean Harbour Program - Randle Reef Project. Arial image of Randle Reef site.

Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) are bad for you. More than 695,000 cubic metres – about the volume of three professional hockey arenas – of PAH are bad for an entire ecosystem. That’s how much toxic sediment sits on the floor of Hamilton Harbour on the south shore, approximately between Wentworth Street North and Birch Avenue. This is the Randle Reef toxic sediment site. The worst deposit of its kind in Canada, it is the unfortunate legacy of more than a century and a half of varied industrial activity in the area. It is also one of the major obstacles the community must address before Hamilton Harbour can be considered for delisting as an area of concern.

Addressing Randle Reef has been a Hamilton Harbour Remedial Action Plan priority since 1992 when a four-year study investigated different strategies for removing, containing or destroying the toxic sludge. In 2002, an Environment Canada-led Project Advisory Group provided consensus support to a plan that would leave the dangerous sediment in place but capture it in an engineered containment facility (ECF). The preliminary design for the ECF was completed in 2006, laying the groundwork for detailed design, financial planning, partnership arrangements and other key project elements. In 2013, the Randle Reef project partners completed the necessary legal and funding agreements and after more than two decades of work, the Randle Reef sediment remediation[4] project finally had a full green light.

A tremendous example of a partnership that involves multiple governments and corporate partners, the funding for the $138.9-million Randle Reef ECF is provided by the Government of Canada, the Province of Ontario, the City of Hamilton, U.S. Steel Canada, the Hamilton Port Authority, the City of Burlington and Halton Region.

Construction began in 2015 with an expected completion date of 2023. At that time, the Hamilton Port Authority will accept ownership of the 6.2 hectare ECF and begin operating the site as a port facility. With double steel-sheet pile walls driven to depths of up to 24 metres into the harbour floor, inner and outer walls and a multi-layered cap, the ECF is being built to specifications that will ensure it has a 200-year lifespan.

Historic Hamilton Waterworks
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Hamilton Clean Harbour Program - Historic Hamilton Waterworks

Not far from the southeast corner of Hamilton Harbour, in the shadow of the Queen Elizabeth Way, there is a National Historic Site at 900 Woodward Avenue. Now welcoming visitors as the award-winning Hamilton Museum of Steam & Technology, the fully restored Victorian facility is a working monument to one of the most important milestones in Hamilton’s development as a major urban centre.

In 1832 and again in 1854, Hamilton suffered major cholera epidemics. A virulent and deadly bacterial disease most often caused by ineffective sewage practices and unclean drinking water, these outbreaks provided strong motivation for civic leaders to begin planning the City’s first community waterworks. The initial detailed proposal was developed in 1836, but it wasn’t until 1854 when the city ran a contest to select the best design. Thomas Coltrin Keefer was the winning architect.

Construction began in 1856. The mission of the waterworks was simple and important: to deliver large quantities of clean water for safe drinking and for fire control throughout the rapidly expanding City. Hamilton turned on the massive steam-powered Gartshore pumps – examples of some of the most advanced technology of the day – in 1859. Over the years, the original facility expanded to include a second steam-powered pumping station (1887) and a third pumping station driven by both electric and steam power (1913).

The waterworks remained in operation until 1970 when it was replaced by a new facility nearby. By that time, the original waterworks had grown into something of a campus with multiple buildings of varying qualities and permanence. Today, the 1859 Pumphouse remains with its engines and equipment intact. The Boilerhouse, Chimney and Woodshed also survive from 1859, as do three other historic structures: the Worthington Shed (1910) containing a small steam pump, a second Pumphouse (1913) and a Carpenter’s Shed (1915).

Declared a National Historic Site in 1997, the Hamilton Museum of Steam & Technology preserves two 70-ton steam engines, perhaps the oldest surviving Canadian-built engines, and offers visitors a rare and immersive opportunity to experience the way industrial technology helped improve the quality of life in Hamilton, making the City a far safer and healthier place to live.

Hamilton Harbour Remedial Action Plan
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Hamilton Clean Harbour - Hamilton Harbour Remedial Action Plan

The Hamilton Harbour Remedial Action Plan (HHRAP) describes a list of “beneficial use impairments” (BUI) that have put Hamilton Harbour on the International Joint Commission’s roster of areas of concern (AOC) on the Great Lakes. The BUIs relate primarily to fish and wildlife (including loss of habitat, the presence of undesirable algae and fish/wildlife illness) and to human interaction with the harbour (including obstacles to swimming, recreational uses and drinking water quality).

The challenge of reducing or even fixing the BUIs is that each is a multifaceted issue. For example, solving many BUIs requires improvements in harbour water quality.  Improving water quality requires enhancements in water treatment plants; better management of industrial, institutional and household waste and runoff; potential changes to agricultural and construction practices; more effective stewardship of the watershed[5] that feeds into the harbour; policy controls that influence land use and development; investments in better storm water management; effective water quality testing programs and enhanced public education, to name just a few of the issues at play.

The HHRAP identifies the necessary interim steps and points of progression required to build toward the day when each BUI is taken off the to-do list. The HHRAP also identifies the community stakeholders that are best positioned to address each aspect of the plan’s goals.

The Remedial Action Plan was prepared in 1992 after extensive community consultation. In the simplest terms, the plan works to manage or solve the legacy of ecological degradation in Hamilton Harbour and its watershed while also working to limit future damage. The plan acknowledges that given the economic and recreational importance of the harbour, it will never return to a pristine natural state. Instead, the goal of the HHRAP is to create a healthy, sustainable multi-use harbour that will be able to play many roles in the life of the local community.

The HHRAP addresses its desired outcomes in three stages. The first stage is an assessment of the environmental conditions and a definition of the specific problems. The second stage provides a list of goals, options and recommendations on how to improve on that starting point. The final stage addresses strategies for evaluating progress and ways to confirm that the goals of the HHRAP have been met.

Real-Time Control
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Hamilton Clean Harbour Program - Real-Time Control Project.

Like every municipal wastewater system, Hamilton’s system has capacity limits imposed by everything from the size of pipes to the speed of treatment processes. Real-time controls help get the most out of the system - whatever its limitations - and maximize the significant investments the community has already made in its water and wastewater infrastructure. With advanced computer software responding to sensors that measure factors such as flow, level, pressure and rainfall, real-time controls manipulate gates, weirs, chambers and pump stations to get the most out of the wastewater system. These responses and adaptations occur immediately, resulting in an overall system that is more capable of managing wet weather flows, better prepared to defend its own systems from damage or overuse and better equipped to protect the water quality of Hamilton Harbour.

The City of Hamilton began its Real-Time Control project in 2008 by identifying approximately $35 million of infrastructure investments required to maximize the wastewater system’s capacity and better position it to meet its goals for everything from localized flood protection to water quality. With funding support from Infrastructure Canada’s Canada Strategic Infrastructure Fund, construction on a number of key systems and upgrades began in 2011.

One of the most significant early milestones of the Real-Time Control project was the installation of a new regulator gate at the Wellington/Burlington Combined Sewer Overflow which was, at the time, the largest uncontrolled overflow in the City. Commissioned in 2012, the regulator gate and control structure have the ability to redirect flow into unused capacity of the Western Sanitary Interceptor North Branch. In the first 10 months of operation, this real-time control capability facilitated the capture of more than 500,000 cubic metres of water that would have otherwise overflowed the system. That improvement, in turn, had a measurable impact on the quality of water being returned to Hamilton Harbour. In just those 10 months, the real-time control at Wellington/Burlington helped prevent 44,500 kg of suspended solids, 120 kg of total phosphorous and 130 kg of ammonium nitrogen from entering the harbour.

In 2022 and into 2023, the program is expanding to include weir heights adjustments and programming changes to retain more wet weather flow within the system.

[1] Any plant or animal that is not naturally occurring in a specific area is “invasive” and can cause problems in the ecosystem because – most frequently – it is not properly balanced by other species that eat it
[2] Muddy and dense with various suspended particles
[3] Digging down the bottom of a waterway, usually to create or maintain enough water depth to sustain shipping
[4] Acting of fixing something that has been damaged
[5] The geographic area in which all creeks, streams and rivers eventually drain into the same body of water, in this case, Hamilton Harbour