EXPLORE THE BAY

2017 Harbour Report Card

The 2017 Towards Safe Harbour Report Card provides citizens from across the watershed with a brief but informed and comprehensive indication of the progress and challenges in completing the Hamilton Harbour Remedial Action Plan.
 
Like school report cards, ours gives three grades for performance and three indicators of effort. The results that we report below represent the collective assessment of dozens of scientists and other expert citizens engaged by BARC to determine a fair and accurate appraisal of how much past and ongoing restoration projects have achieved and how much more there is to be done. 

Report Card Grades

These three sections are intended to help answer three basic questions:
1. Is the Harbour a healthy place for things to live?
2. Do things actually live there?
3. Are those things contaminated?

Is the Harbour a healthy place for things to live?
Do things actually live there? Are those things contaminated?

These three grades reflect our collective progress in meeting the measurable goals of the RAP. The forecasts are an indication of where we’re going to be in another few years.

HEALTHY WATER AND HABITAT

FORECAST: 

The benefits of our success in addressing specific issues such as wastewater management and the restoration of riparian habitat are being overshadowed by the negative impacts of larger, system-wide challenges. As a community, our ability to improve Harbour water quality has never been stronger, but our technology and processes must keep up with challenges posed by regional population growth, land development and climate change.

Is the Harbour a healthy place for things to live?


HEALTHY HARBOUR WATER QUALITY

Improved Hamilton sewer system through control of flow, gates, pumps and overflow tanks in real time Wastewater treatment/effluent quality entering the Harbour vastly improved with upgrades to Burlington’s Skyway (completed) and Hamilton’s Woodward (underway) sewage treatment plants
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Fifty percent of all inputs received into Hamilton Harbour go through one of three wastewater treatment plants: Hamilton’s Woodward and Dundas plants, and Halton’s Skyway plant. The Skyway plant was upgraded to tertiary treatment in 2016 at a cost of $158.8 million, and the Woodward plant is undergoing a similar $330 million upgrade that will be completed by 2022. At that point, most treated wastewater being released into Hamilton Harbour will be helping to improve water quality in the bay because the amounts of nutrients such as phosphorus will actually be lower than the RAP target.


Improved Hamilton sewer system through control of flow, gates, pumps and overflow tanks in real time.
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The parts of the City of Hamilton developed prior to approximately 1970 have combined sewers where only one pipe carries both sewage and stormwater. Most of the time, combined sewers carry all contents (rain, melted snow and sewage) to wastewater treatment plants for full treatment.

During periods of intense rainfall or heavy snowmelt, the volume of stormwater that enters these combined sewers may exceed the system’s capacity and some of the combined sewer flow (a mix of stormwater and sewage) must be diverted (or overflow) untreated, directly into creeks, rivers and the Lake. Combined sewer discharges contain harmful bacteria, pathogens, heavy metals, oils, and pesticides, as well as nutrients that can increase algae growth and degrade surface water. Combined sewer overflows (CSOs) were designed to act as a relief valve to prevent sewer overloads, which could lead to backups that flood basements, public spaces and even sewage treatment plants.

The City of Hamilton has developed an overview of the combined sewer issue and has a combined sewer overflow strategy.

The Province of Ontario also publishes design guidelines for sewage systems that include operational measures which may help to mitigate the impacts of combined sewer systems.


Science is improved, although it’s giving us a better understanding of how poor conditions persist
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The problem of legacy contaminated sediment at Randle Reef was first discovered in 1988. At the time, the problem was believed to be limited in extent, but as technology and field methods improved it was realized that the problem was orders of magnitude larger than first thought.

Other examples of science continuing to improve our understanding of the Harbour’s properties and processes include ongoing studies into the lack of dissolved oxygen in the ecosystem, the recent declines in native fish populations, DNA fingerprinting of E. coli bacteria at the Harbour’s beaches, the impact of internal loading of phosphorus stored away in sediment, and the extent and difficulty posed by watershed sources of phosphorus.


Phosphorus levels remain relatively unchanged for many years
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Nutrients such as phosphorus play a crucial role in the normal function of aquatic ecosystems, but too many nutrients can have negative impacts. Learn more about nutrient pollution in general, and phosphorus in aquatic ecosystems, in particular.


Projections for population increase and related development in the watershed; uncertainty about the adoption of improved stormwater management across the watershed
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  • The steady increase in land use change and development across the Hamilton Harbour Watershed increasingly impacts surface water quality. Construction sites and agriculture, for example, create large amounts of sediment which clogs up waterways and helps to transport phosphorus downstream. And roads, parking lots and other hard surfaces change the way that water travels across the watershed, increasing its speed and causing erosion and contamination of waterways.

Lack of dissolved oxygen remains problematic for most of the Harbour, especially where the water is deeper
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Water is H2O – a molecule of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom. But this single oxygen atom in every water molecules is not what is needed by organisms living in aquatic ecosystems. A small amount of oxygen – up to about ten molecules of oxygen per million of water molecules – is actually dissolved in water. This dissolved oxygen is what is breathed by fish and other critters in the water for their survival.

Eutrophication is a process caused when surface water receives an excessive nutrient load, particularly phosphorus and nitrogen. This often results in an overgrowth of algae. As the algae die and decompose, oxygen dissolved in the water is depleted. The lack of oxygen in the water can cause aquatic animals such as fish to die.


Water quality in the marshes has improved, although it is still worse than in the Harbour where progress on improving water quality has largely flatlined
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This chart illustrates a dramatic improvement in water quality over time (through the reduction of phosphorus in the Harbour).


RESTORE FISH AND WILDLIFE HABITAT

Spatial quantity of restored aquatic habitat in the Harbour attained, half attained in the marshes
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This information is coming soon.


Riparian habitat has improved spawning areas in the watershed
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This information is coming soon.


Management of phragmites and carp
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This information is coming soon.


Management of species at risk in the marshes
Learn More

This information is coming soon.


Funding for further opportunities to implement habitat restoration is limited
Learn More

This information is coming soon.


Further carp control necessary for Grindstone river mouth restoration
Learn More

This information is coming soon.


Quality of habitat is poor due to poor water quality
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Water quality drives so many other elements of the ecosystem, some of our goals lag waiting for further water quality improvements overall.


Climate change and high and low water levels all challenge our assumptions, targets and goals for what’s possible
Learn More

Climate change is, of course, the greatest uncertainty in our community’s efforts to restore Hamilton Harbour. The Prairie Climate Centre has produced a very good overview with resources, and the federal government’s site also provides a lot of information. There are also other sites with local connections to climate change, including Climate Change Hamilton, the Hamilton Conservation Authority and the City of Burlington. It has been reported that climate change will impact local weather patterns and that summers will be increasingly hot.



BEACHES OPEN AT WEST END OF HARBOUR

City of Hamilton pursuing resolution to water quality issues at Bayfront Park
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The City of Hamilton reports on beach water quality, and this webpage also has updates on the presence of toxin-producing blue-green algae (cyanobacteria) in Hamilton Harbour in the summer of 2018, as well as documents related to the 2016 closure of Bayfront Park Beach. You can also read BARC’s op-ed in The Hamilton Spectator in


Some waterfowl management measures are continuing with hope for renewed and reliable approach to resolving issues/improving water quality at beaches
Learn More

This information is coming soon.


Water quality at the beaches has decreased in recent years
Learn More

This information is coming soon.


2016 closure of Bayfront beach and poor 2016 test results at Pier 4
Learn More

This information is coming soon.



WATER VIEWS AND AESTHETICS

Improved control of Hamilton’s combined sewers in real-time
Learn More

This information is coming soon.


Many non-BUI related clean-up programs and projects
Learn More

This information is coming soon.


Lack of clarity on needs for BUI delisting
Learn More

This information is coming soon.






FISH AND WILDLIFE POPULATIONS

FORECAST: 

The health of the Harbour’s fish and wildlife populations continues to vary dramatically from species to species. Success in re-introducing walleye, a top native predator, is countered by a nearshore fish community dominated by non-native and pollution-tolerant species. Colonial bird communities are doing relatively well, but poor water quality threatens native fish population recovery. We anticipate more positive developments as we continue to improve water quality, invest in species re-introduction efforts, control invasive species and restore additional habitat.

Do things actually live there?


RESTORE FISH POPULATIONS

Walleye stocking continues; studies planned to determine natural reproduction
Learn More

This information is coming soon.


Water quality improvements expected from upgrades at Woodward (under construction) and Dundas (planning stage) water treatment plants
Learn More

This information is coming soon.


Nearshore fish community remains impaired, dominated by non-native and pollution-tolerant species
Learn More

This information is coming soon.


Abundance of many native species is declining
Learn More

This information is coming soon.


Index of biotic integrity (IBI) is less than what’s required and hasn’t improved in many years
Learn More

This information is coming soon.


Threats include poor water quality, increasing diversity and abundance of non-native/invasive species, development in the watershed, and habitat degradation
Learn More

This information is coming soon.



RESTORE WILDLIFE POPULATIONS

Colonial bird community doing relatively well
Learn More

This information is coming soon.


Bald Eagles returned to nest and breed in the forest adjacent Cootes Paradise marsh
Learn More

This information is coming soon.


Some mammal species doing well (although not a BUI target)
Learn More

This information is coming soon.


Do we have the research and monitoring necessary to gauge progress towards BUI targets?
Learn More

This information is coming soon.





TOXIC CONTAMINANTS AND SEDIMENT

FORECAST: 

The construction of the Randle Reef containment facility is the single most significant step forward in containing toxic sediment in the Harbour. It is not, however, the only step. There are still areas beyond Randle Reef that are contaminated, but there is progress being made on other known sediment sources and deposits. Importantly, the contamination of fish and wildlife is slowly declining overall, and continuing clean up will lead to further reductions in exposure to and the effects of toxic deposits.

Are those things contaminated?


CLEAN UP CONTAMINATED SEDIMENT IN THE HARBOUR

Randle Reef – completion of the Environmental Containment Facility; anticipation of dredging and capping
Learn More

BARC has produced our own Randle Reef project website (with assistance from Environment Canada) in order to explain and keep current as constuction proceeds.


Dofasco boat slip – selection of management options and environmental assessment process
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ArcelorMittal Dofasco is proposing to contain contaminated sediment within the Kenilworth Avenue Boat Slip by constructing and monitoring new facilities, used for the disposal of hazardous waste, including an engineered in-situ cap and a separate engineered containment area.


Windermere Arm – characterization of sources of contaminated sediment... long time coming!
Learn More

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/305431259_Trends_in_Hamilton_Harbour_suspended_sediment_quality


Strathearne Slip – characterization of sources of contaminated sediment... long time coming! This one in particular is the last known active source of PCBs
Learn More

https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/hamilton/headlines/toxic-banned-pcbs-are-leaking-into-hamilton-harbour-1.3304688


Most contaminants will remain exposed to the ecosystem for many years
Learn More

One principal difference between the Harbour we are restoring today and the one that made Hamilton synonomous with pollution is the difference between active and legacy sources of that pollution.

From the article: “complex mixtures of legacy contaminants, emerging chemicals and natural biotoxins in marine ecosystems represent important scientific, economic and health challenges.” All three of these contaminant problems impact Hamilton Harbour.

As Dana Sackett reports: “Legacy is defined as something that is inherited by one generation from the previous.While some legacies are better than others, not all are good. Legacy pollutants are one of the bad ones.These pollutants stick around to cause problems well after they are released into the environment. Indeed, they often continue to cause harm even after they are banned by regulation.”

Scientific American reports that in all of the Great Lakes, old contaminants like DDT are declining but are being replaced by new ones, such as flame retardants.


Slow progress on most of these projects, however
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Potential for additional sources to be discovered
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The vast majority of toxic contaminants in Hamilton Harbour are legacy pollution that remain in mostly in the sediment long after their source has been removed. Much of this has been mapped out and even remediated – as is the case with Randle Reef, the largest and most renowned source of legacy pollution in Hamilton Harbour – but not enough is known about some others but progress is slowly being made. For example, there has been a selection of management options and environmental assessment process for the Dofasco boat slip, and at the Strathearne Slip there has been a characterization of sources of contaminated sediment – the last known active source of PCBs in Hamilton Harbour – enabling a long legal battle over responsibility to play out.



REDUCE CONTAMINANT LEVELS IN FISH AND WILDLIFE

Comprehensive study of fish contaminant levels and statue completed: PCBs are much lower than historical levels although still elevated compared to reference sites
Learn More

This information is coming soon.


Background report on wildlife data completed, although no reference material such as consumption guidelines
Learn More

This information is coming soon.


Despite remaining legacy toxic contamination issues, results of new science indicate relatively/mostly good news for birds, turtles and frogs
Learn More

This information is coming soon.


Continuing investment in the necessary science and connect status to delisting
Learn More

This information is coming soon.


Impacts of poor water quality/wastewater effluent in Cootes remains a threat
Learn More

This information is coming soon.





Achieving progress in the Harbour demands that we manage human activity around the Harbour, by gathering and sharing adequate information, engaging and educating citizens and by acting on new ideas.

These three measures reflect the collective learning and work habits of the RAP community in meeting the challenges of restoring Hamilton Harbour.

RESEARCH AND MONITORING

EFFORT: 

Compared to other badly polluted bays and rivers on the Great Lakes, research and monitoring of Hamilton Harbour have been extraordinary and have benefited from recent investment in the science behind restoring habitat, water quality, aquatic plants and fish and wildlife. However, there are still significant gaps in research and monitoring related to several restoration goals. Closing these gaps and coordinating a wider range of research and monitoring will be necessary to generate the information and the informed action required for completing the RAP. Monitoring nonpoint sources may require new approaches not currently in use in the Harbour.

MONITOR HARBOUR ENVIRONMENTAL CONDITIONS

Increased investment in science and monitoring for habitat, water quality, fish, aquatic plants, wildlife, benthos
Learn More

This information is coming soon.


Improvements ongoing but further enhancements needed in coordination of research and monitoring
Learn More

This information is coming soon.


Need to improve the capacity for monitoring pollutants related to public health and BUIs
Learn More

This information is coming soon.


Need to know more about issues limiting fish and wildlife reproduction
Learn More

This information is coming soon.


Renewed emphasis on phosphorus and sediment, new reports and consensus recommendations
Learn More

In 2013, the RAP Office organized a workshop with scientists, planners and other professional at all RAP agencies to examine watershed sources of phosphorus and sediment. A significant outcome of that workshop was the formation of four new RAP committees to specifically examine urban sources in Hamilton, urban sources in Burlington, active construction sites as significant point sources, and rural lands as significant non-point sources.


Need to improve the capacity for monitoring contaminants and nutrients related to water quality downstream and BUIs
Learn More

This information is coming soon.





WATERSHED MANAGEMENT

EFFORT: 

Recent RAP emphasis on source reduction of sediment and phosphorus in the watershed is promising, but corresponding changes in public policy and management strategies remain uncertain. Numerous management plans related to the RAP have been developed or updated recently, although challenges remain in linking these specifically to the RAP’s completion. The impact of positive steps – like evolving farming practices and Hamilton’s improved control of its combined sewers in real time – are contributing to better water quality, but those benefits are reduced by the influence of changing land uses and development across the watershed.

CONTROL EROSION AND IMPLEMENT STORMWATER MANAGEMENT (URBAN AND RURAL)

Renewed emphasis on phosphorus and sediment, new reports and consensus recommendations
Learn More

This information is coming soon.


Ontario to release updated Stormwater Management Planning and Design Manual in 2017 that will require the application of low-impact development techniques
Learn More

Improved water quality resulting from a shift in farming practices
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Agriculture both relies on and impacts surface water quality. It’s therefore important to understand the connection between farming practices and water.

In addition, here’s an interesting paper by the OECD on agriculture and sustainability, and although global in nature, the lessons it draws have relevance in the Hamilton Harbour watershed.


Rapid pace of development, limits on capacity and authority of regulatory and planning agencies
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It’s been suggested that improvements in water quality in Hamilton Harbour have levelled off in recent years.


Lack of overall assessment or understanding of activities and impacts
Learn More

This information is coming soon.



COMPLETE AND IMPLEMENT WATERSHED PLANS AND WASTEWATER PLANS

Hamilton stormwater masterplan updated in 2007
Learn More

Hamilton CA update of Lower Spencer Integrated Subwatershed Plan nearly complete. Conservation Halton has Grindstone Watershed Study on hold currently as it moves to an Integrated Watershed Planning model. Cootes to Escarpment Management Plan for Clappison-Grindstone Heritage Lands includes watershed plan-type recommendations, including some related to stormwater management

Further progress often limited by status of provincial policy requirements
Learn More

This information is coming soon.



REDUCE OR ELIMINATE DISCHARGES

City of Hamilton’s improved control of its combined sewers in real-time
Learn More




PUBLIC INFORMATION, EDUCATION AND ACCESS

EFFORT: 

Area residents know more about and have more ways to get to and enjoy Hamilton Harbour than ever before. Educational programs continue to expand, including enhanced subwatershed report cards and multi-agency public outreach, while projects at Windermere Basin and the West Harbour along with future residential and commercial development at Pier 8 are enhancing recreational shoreline access. Key challenges include fostering excellence in design and accurate public perceptions of RAP progress and challenges, as well as ensuring that the public connects downstream water quality issues with their own upstream activities.

EDUCATE WATERSHED RESIDENTS REGARDING LAND STEWARDSHIP

Long-term on-going urban and rural landowner outreach continues, new emphasis on Low Impact Development techniques
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The conservation authorities in particular have long-standing outreach programs with rural and other land owners to share and learn about best practices in farming and other human activities that impact water quality.

Low Impact Development (LID) is the name for several green infrastructure approaches and techniques to better manage water on the landscape, especially in how development and land use changes can more effective mimic the water cycles of natural landscapes. The Green Infrastructure Ontario Coalition has a wealth of information about the science and policy behind making green infrastructure the “new normal”, and the Low Impact Development Center in Maryland also has links to many interesting projects and resources.


Subwatershed report cards
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The Hamilton Harbour watershed is entirely within the landscapes covered by the Hamilton Conservation Authority and Conservation Halton, and includes the watersheds of the main tributary rivers that flow into the Harbour: Red Hill Creek, Spencer Creek, and Grindstone Creek.

The subwatershed report cards – Hamilton Conservation Authority’s 2018 Watershed Report Card and Conservation Halton’s 2018 Watershed Report Card – provide scientific data and analyses on local environmental conditions to provide awareness for citizens and get this information to local decision-makers


Multiple agency stewardship programming across the watershed
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This information is coming soon.


Measure of impact needed
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Measuring the impact of community and educational programming and events is very difficult. What we know for is the content of the messages and materials, and the number of people participating. BARC’s educational programming and community events engage more than 15,000 participants each year, and while that’s a great number, we can’t know the impression that these new messages and experiences have on our participants. And we also can’t know the number of additional people that we influence through communication with participants after we’ve engaged with them.

To BARC’s end, we have worked with experts from McMaster University for many years to learn from feedback we receive from teachers and other program participants, and to survey public opinion on the issues related to water and our mandate.



INCREASE PUBLIC ACCESS TO THE HARBOUR SHORELINE

Some new physical access at Cootes, Valley Inn, Windermere
Learn More

This information is coming soon.


BARC's web app for self-directed tours and website research portal; BARC and RBG working on digital canoe routes
Learn More

In 2013, BARC began to build an web-based interactive map to assist citizens to locate place-based information about the Harbour’s history and ecology that we called our Interactive Harbour Explorer.


Beginning of implementation of West Harbour Recreational Master Plan and Setting Sail objectives for new residential development at Pier 8
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  • The West Harbour is the principal shoreline recreational area in the Harbour. Historically neglected and entirely lacking in public access, the West Harbour has been re-imagined in a formal redevelopment plan known as Setting Sail.
  • In 2016, BARC released a position statement to formalize our view and aspirations for the continued redevelopment of the West Harbour.

Accurate measure of accessible shoreline needed, with improved information available at access points
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The RAP goals for aquatic habitat and public access to the waterfront depend on having accurate measurements of the shoreline. Attempts to quantify the shoreline and its land use and habitat types have been improving over time, and there are currently processes in place to support making these better and more accurate.



INCREASE PUBLIC UNDERSTANDING AND APPRECIATION OF THE HARBOUR AND WATERSHED

Continued and improved multi-agency programming in schools, at community events and on trails and at other access points (BARC, RBG, HWT, C2E, etc.)
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BARC was formed in 1991 principally to monitor the progress of the Hamilton Harbour Remedial Action Plan. Our 2017 Report Card is one of the most recent examples of how we continue to serve the public interest in that way. But have always played a more expansive role than that.

In 2017, BARC’s educational and outreach programming in schools and across the watershed engaged more than 15,000 students and citizens in community events and volunteer activities. We’re doing as much as we can to help our fellow citizens young and old to better appreciate our collective relationship with water. For example, our programming links water with art (e.g., Stream of Dreams), stormwater with land use and water quality (e.g., Raingers), and links human activities with the health of water (e.g., Yellow Fish Road) and critters (e.g., Creeks and Creepy Crawlies).

We are joined in these efforts by an increasing number of people and programs. The Royal Botanical Gardens and the Hamilton and Halton conservation authorities have long provided their members and the general public with natural areas, water access points, and school programming that provide opportunities for people to directly engage with the natural world.

The municipalities have also done much to increase public access to water. For example, the City of Hamilton is responsible for building and maintaining several kilometres of waterfront trail, and also hosts the annual Children's Water Festival for grade four students from across the city.

And newer initiatives are also providing both the big picture of the global importance of our watershed (Cootes to Escarpment Ecopark System) and more opportunities for citizens to get their hands literally dirty contributing to watershed restoration (Stewards of Cootes Watershed).


Continued challenge of connecting downstream water quality issues with upstream human activities
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Too often our relationship with water is simply one of using what comes out of the tap and and then sending it down the drain. In the context of Hamilton Harbour, a body of water uniquely degraded and maligned since the 19th century, our task in improving public understanding and appreciation for water and water quality issues and challenges is all the more difficult.

Perhaps we might take some comfort in the fact that this is not a new problem. As early as 1862, the Hamilton Spectator editorialized that “We have been informed that the refuse from the coal oil refineries, which is emptied into the Bay, is having a very deleterious effect upon the fisheries at the Beach. It is said that the water, on certain mornings, is covered for a considerable distance with oil and the effect has been to drive away the fish from the Beach. The subject is not without difficulty. In the infancy of the coal oil industry, it would be inexpedient to place restrictions on the operations of refiners, but at the same time, it would be disastrous to the fishing industry if the fish are driven away by the noxious effluvia arising from the coal oil.” The subject remains difficult, to say the least, with so many more competing interests now for water and its uses, and so many more people living across the watershed.

Today, water quality issues are no longer simply local incidents of contaminated runoff from farm fields and construction sites, but they’re increasing global issues with local impacts from climate change to invasive species of plants and animals.

The Hamilton Harbour Remedial Action Plan serves as one of the few policy venues that pulls together a necessary variety of agency mandates to plan and act on these issues and at appropriate scales. In 2013, for example, the RAP began a process to investigate the issue of erosion and human activities that send sediment into surface water that then carries phosphorus downstream. Phosphorus is a natural and necessary part of an aquatic ecosystem, but too much of it in water can turn phosphorus into a contaminate. On the community side, BARC has run Yellow Fish Road for many years, a program that educates about the the connection between human activities and the health of downstream aquatic ecosystems by promoting “only rain down the drain” as “all drains lead to to fish”.






This report card is a measure of the progress and success of the Hamilton Harbour RAP over the past five years. Produced and released in June 2017 by BARC’s Board of Directors under advisement by its staff and Technical Advisory Committee, it summarizes the evidence underpinning a consensus of more than forty professionals from partner agencies within the Hamilton Harbour RAP community. BARC thanks those colleagues for their contribution.
 
BARC especially thanks the members of its Technical Advisory Committee:
Martin Keller (chair), Grand River Conservation Authority
Kim Barrett, Conservation Halton
Duncan Boyd, Ontario Ministry of the Environment (emeritus)
Vic Cairns, Fisheries & Oceans Canada (emeritus)
Murray Charlton, Environment Canada (emeritus)
Ed DeBruyn, Fisheries & Oceans Canada (emeritus)
Chris McLaughlin, Bay Area Restoration Council
Maureen Padden, McMaster University
Scott Peck, Hamilton Conservation Authority
Mary Ellen Scanlon, Ontario Ministry of the Environment (emeritus)
Andy Sebestyen, US Steel Canada
Tys Theysmeyer, Royal Botanical Gardens
 
BARC also gratefully acknowledges the support of Environment and Climate Change Canada, the Ontario Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change and the Hamilton Port Authority in producing and distributing this report card. Their support does not indicate an endorsement of this document.