The Clean Harbour Program Story
Hamilton Harbour is a reflection of the people, businesses and natural habitats around it. If we protect the harbour and use it wisely, it can support industry and commerce; offer recreation, sport and cultural experiences; and become a healthy and sustainable ecosystem.
Restoring and Protecting Hamilton's "Beautiful Waters"
The 7.5-kilometre long triangle of Hamilton Harbour has been at the heart of the communities surrounding it for centuries. It was a pristine fishery for the Iroquoian-speaking First Nations that called the bay “Macassa” – beautiful waters. It was the engine that powered the industrial progress of the “Ambitious City.” It was the playground for generations who found entertainment and recreation on its waters and its shores.
Then, by the Second World War, sewage, habitat destruction, contamination and toxic spills had turned the harbour into something different. It had become, in the words of one Hamilton Spectator reporter, “dirty and flecked with foulness.” The degradation continued into the 1980s when our community decided to begin reclaiming the harbour’s health and natural heritage.
The progress since is a Hamilton success story and Hamilton Water is at the centre of our community’s efforts to improve water quality, restore the natural environment and protect the health of the harbour for future generations.
Hamilton Harbour is a reflection of the people, businesses and natural habitats around it. The harbour’s 500-square km watershed is home to more than 600,000 people who are becoming increasingly aware that the harbour fulfils multiple roles in the community. If we protect the harbour and use it wisely, it can support industry and commerce; offer recreation, sport and cultural experiences; and become a healthy and sustainable ecosystem.
Achieving these goals is a complex process. Getting there starts with our choices at home – choices like conserving water, fixing leaks and disposing of paints and solvents responsibly. Hamilton’s water, wastewater and storm water infrastructure also plays an integral role in our community’s efforts to maintain a healthy, multi-use harbour. The facilities and processes we use to pump, treat, drain and move water through our City are the responsibility of Hamilton Water and they are shaping Hamilton Harbour’s present and future.
Hamilton's Clean Harbour Program
Hamiltonians and Hamilton City Council have made it clear that bringing Hamilton Harbour back to health is a community priority. Hamilton’s Clean Harbour Program is working to transform the harbour by improving water quality, undoing environmental damage caused by decades of neglect and restoring harbour ecology.
The Clean Harbour program unites local, provincial and federal governments in making large capital investments in water, wastewater and stormwater infrastructure with the goal of producing measurable improvements in water quality and in the health of the local environment. Initiatives include everything from fixing cross-connected pipes that contaminate storm sewers to iconic community projects including the Woodward Wastewater Treatment Plant upgrade and the construction of the Randle Reef engineered containment facility (ECF). These projects – big and small – form the foundation that will support the health of Hamilton Harbour for decades.
A Big Piece of the Hamilton Harbour Remedial Action Plan
By the middle of the twentieth century, decades of toxic sediment, stormwater runoff, habitat loss, water quality deterioration and other factors had caused severe damage to the Hamilton Harbour ecosystem. Then in 1987, the International Joint Commission (IJC) – the organization overseeing the Canada-United States Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement – identified Hamilton Harbour as one of 43 areas of concern (AOC). Being named to that list of locations where environmental degradation seriously impaired the use and environmental health of the Great Lakes was a turning point.
By 1992, community stakeholders had developed the Hamilton Harbour Remedial Action Plan (HHRAP), a road map for restoring the harbour to good health and having it removed – or “delisted” – as an area of concern. The Clean Harbour Program manages the largest public investments in the HHRAP. Those projects impact the majority of measurable targets identified in the plan and when the harbour is delisted, the Clean Harbour program will be one of the key strategies that made it possible.
The Harbour of the Future
Hamilton Harbour is counting down to delisting day. With the leadership of Hamilton City Council and the contributions of dozens of community stakeholder organizations, the Clean Harbour program is making powerful contributions to the harbour’s recovery. The harbour has passed the half-way point of the HHRAP and is now looking to projects such as the upgrade of the Woodward Wastewater Treatment Plant and the containment of the Randle Reef toxic sediment to bring the harbour to the verge of delisting and beyond.
There is a great deal of work still to do, and on the day after delisting, the work of sustaining and improving on that success will begin, but Hamilton’s Clean Harbour program is working today to reclaim the health of Hamilton Harbour and make it a safe and beautiful place of pride for our community.
 Hamilton’s nickname that began as a sarcastic insult from a Toronto writer, but became a motto and rallying cry by as early as the 1830s
 The area from which all water – streams, creeks and other runoff – eventually flows into the harbour
 A mutually dependent system of animals, plants and habit in the natural environment
 Built community assets, often large construction projects, including sewers, water treatment plants, pumping stations and other facilities
 Unlike water from sanitary sewers which goes through a treatment plant before flowing into the harbour, storm sewer output reaches the harbour untreated
 Located on Woodward Avenue near the southeast corner of the harbour, it is the largest water treatment plant in the Hamilton Harbour watershed and one of the largest in Ontario
 The largest toxic sediment site on the Canadian side of the Great Lakes, located near the south shore of the harbour roughly between Wentworth St and Sherman Ave
The Pre-Industrial Harbour
Hamilton Harbour was part of First Nations life for centuries before the arrival of French explorer Étienne Brûlé in 1616. Rich in flora and fauna of all kinds, the harbour and Cootes Paradise, the marsh to the west of the harbour, were stunningly beautiful in the seventeenth-century. In fact, by the time Geneva Lake or Macassa Bay, as the harbour had been known, was officially proclaimed to be Burlington Bay in 1792, it was already gaining a reputation for its natural beauty. In 1813, the Topographical Description of Upper Canada characterized the harbour as “perhaps as beautiful and romantic a situation as any in the interior of America, particularly if we include with it a marshy lake which falls into it, and a noble promontory that divides them.”
In 1785, Richard Beasley settled on the shores of Burlington Heights and by 1815, the area had inspired a permanent European settlement. George Hamilton led the move to establish a village in what was known then as Barton Township. He was successful in 1833, seven years after the Burlington Canal opened to connect Hamilton Harbour to Lake Ontario.
The Engine of the Ambitious City
With its large, deep-water harbour, along with the 1854 arrival of the Great Western Railway, Hamilton was well positioned to become an industrial centre. Railway expansion nationwide was driving demand for steel and Hamilton’s economy began to boom. The “Ambitious City” was living up to its nickname economically, but the rapid urbanization and competitive commercial environment meant that environmental protection was a low priority. Hamilton’s new waterworks opened in 1859, vastly improving public health issues related to drinking water and sewage, but the natural environment continued to suffer.
By the 1860s, Hamilton Harbour’s fish stocks were in noticeable decline and on the way to collapse. Industrial and household pollution, along with dramatic infilling, had started to make the harbour’s south shore unrecognizable. As Hamilton’s industrial sector thrived through the World Wars and the City’s port became one of the busiest on the Great Lakes, local citizens, organizations, media and governments began to recognize the dangers of ignoring the region’s natural heritage. In the 1960s, the Hamilton Spectator claimed that “the Bay has been turned into a huge potential cesspool, unfit for or unacceptable to human, animal or most forms of plant life.”
The Multi-Use Harbour: The Era of Restoration
Shortly after the Woodward Wastewater Treatment Plant opened in 1964, community support for a stronger approach to protecting the natural environment of Hamilton Harbour began building. By the time the International Joint Commission identified the harbour as one of the 43 “areas of concern” (AOC) on the Great Lakes in 1987, the Hamilton community was ready to put environmental stewardship on equal footing with recreational and industrial uses when it came to Hamilton Harbour. The community completed the Hamilton Harbour Remedial Action Plan (HHRAP) in 1992 as a roadmap to restoring Hamilton Harbour’s ecological health and having the harbour removed from the list of AOCs.
Since the launch of the HHRAP, a coalition of governments, corporations and local organizations has worked diligently to restore and protect Hamilton Harbour’s natural heritage. Projects have included new and enhanced infrastructure to manage wastewater and stormwater, the reconstruction of natural habitats, changes in policies and practices that affect water quality and widespread public education on the importance of a healthy harbour. The result is noticeably and measurably better water quality, increased health in local wildlife populations, enhanced access to recreation opportunities including public swimming and the return of long-vanished fish and bird species including the bald eagle.
A great deal of progress has been made, but much more work lies ahead to restore and sustain a healthy Hamilton Harbour for generations to come.
 Plants and animals
 The practice of creating new usable land where there was once marsh or open water by dumping in rock, soil, gravel and other inert materials – much of the industrial land on Hamilton Harbour’s shore was created this way, as was the land that would become Bayfront Park
 The basic constructed facilities required to serve large-scale community needs – examples in this case include sewer pipes and wastewater treatments plants.
The Benefits of Harbour Restoration
Creating a healthy and sustainable Hamilton Harbour is about more than building a vital ecosystem, it is about developing an irreplaceable resource that meets a variety of community needs. When Hamilton Harbour is delisted as an area of concern (AOC), it will be a huge community milestone and an international certification that the harbour has become a central element of Hamilton’s ecological, social, economic and recreational future.
With the help of a number of community stakeholders – the City of Hamilton included – the ecosystem of Hamilton Harbour and its watershed is slowly healing after more than a century of neglect. That return brings with it healthier and more diverse fish and wildlife populations and more robust plant biodiversity. These qualities make our local ecosystem more resilient, more sustainable and more capable of contributing to its own recovery. As a result, vistas are more beautiful, walks along the water’s edge are more pleasant and the experience of the harbour is more natural.
The environmental recovery to date has seen the return of native wild celery to Cootes Paradise after a 50-year absence and the return of bald eagles after a similar period of extirpation. These changes are bringing Hamiltonians and visitors back to the water, making nature a fixture of the Hamilton experience.
As the Hamilton Harbour ecosystem recovers, as it provides more natural areas and vistas as well as more accessible and enjoyable natural experiences for Hamiltonians, it becomes an increasingly powerful economic engine. It enhances property values and provides the kind of easy-to-reach natural contact so valued by knowledge workers and progressive employers. The reduction of contaminants and pollution, along with the added incentive to exercise and participate in recreational activities, contribute to significant public health benefits as well.
When the harbour is delisted as an area of concern, it will represent a definitive change to Hamilton’s reputation as a city dominated by heavy industry. It will also lead to significant measurable economic benefits. Around the tenth anniversary of the Hamilton Harbour Remedial Action Plan, a research project led by York University's Schulich School of Business estimated that the economic benefits of restoring the harbour would be approximately $1 billion dollars.
Social & Recreation:
Anyone who has spent time in nature knows the social and psychological value of that experience. Increasingly, scientific evidence supports that feeling. Time spent in natural environments such as Cootes Paradise and the parks and trails around Hamilton Harbour can, for example, help reduce the symptoms of attention disorders and improve mental health. The National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion in the United States found that exposure to nature can significantly reduce stress and anxiety for people living in cities, while also contributing to higher academic performance and increased physical fitness in children. With free opportunities to walk, jog, bike and blade near the water’s edge and the chance to swim, boat, scull, row and paddle in and on the water, there’s a harbour-connected activity for everyone.
Hamilton Harbour’s parks, trails and ever-more-accessible shoreline also provide community gathering places and cultural venues. Just as importantly, the natural assets of the harbour are accessible to everyone. The parks and trails are free to use and all are located within the City limits. There’s no long trip to the woods, no detailed planning required. A healthy Hamilton Harbour is a place for all Hamiltonians.
 The destruction or loss of a plant or animal species within a specific geographic area
How did Hamilton Harbour get to the point where it needs to be cleaned up?
A variety of historic and contemporary factors have contributed to the harbour’s environmental degradation. Commercial activities such as industry and shipping have consumed natural habitat and generated pollution. Invasive species, most notably carp in Cootes Paradise, have caused damage and shifts in ecosystems. Commonplace household waste has played a large role, both through less-than-optimal wastewater processing and direct discharges into the harbour. Rainwater and stormwater runoffs carry various contaminants into the harbour and the dumping of chemicals, paints, solvents and other harmful materials into the storm sewer system is also an issue. This is just a partial list, which is why the projects, processes and behavioural changes required to clean up Hamilton Harbour are so numerous and often complex.
What is the Clean Harbour program?
The Clean Harbour Program is a series of large-scale infrastructure projects that is helping to clean up Hamilton Harbour, improve water quality in the harbour, restore natural habitat, create more recreational opportunities for residents, enhance economic development and contribute to better public health. The City of Hamilton leads the Clean Harbour program, though individual projects often involve multiple partners including the provincial and federal governments and local organizations, institutions and corporations.
How much will the Clean Harbour program cost?
The Clean Harbour program has involved more than $530 million in total budget commitments over a period of nearly three decades. The largest projects by budget are the $340 million in upgrades to the Woodward Wastewater Treatment Plant, the $138.9 million Randle Reef engineered containment facility and the $89 million invested in the construction of nine different combined sewer overflow tanks. In almost every Clean Harbour program project, the City of Hamilton is one of multiple funders. For example, the City’s contribution to the Randle Reef project is $14 million.
How can I contribute to a cleaner, healthier Hamilton Harbour?
The projects that make up the Clean Harbour program are vital to the process of making a healthy Hamilton Harbour, but so are the contributions of individual Hamiltonians. First and foremost, any decisions you make that conserve and use water wisely are important. Minimizing the water you use on everyday activities such as washing dishes, washing your car or caring for your garden and lawn contributes to the health of the harbour. Installing rain barrels, low-flush toilets, low-pressure shower heads and other water-saving devices can not only help the harbour, but save you money as well. It’s also important to understand the negative impacts of decisions including using fertilizers, dumping toxic substances and building impervious surfaces including driveways and many patios. Remember that everything that you flush, rinse or wash away is headed for the harbour.
You can also talk to your family, friends, neighbours and colleagues about the importance of water issues and the projects that make up the Clean Harbour program.
If you want to contribute to the cause as a volunteer, organizations such as the Bay Area Restoration Council, Green Venture and the Royal Botanical Gardens may have opportunities that fit your skills and interests.