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
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
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.
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
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 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
Phosphorus levels remain relatively unchanged for many years
Projections for population increase and related development in the watershed; uncertainty about the adoption of improved stormwater management across the watershed
Lack of dissolved oxygen remains problematic for most of the Harbour, especially where the water is deeper
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
RESTORE FISH AND WILDLIFE HABITAT
Spatial quantity of restored aquatic habitat in the Harbour attained, half attained in the marshes
Riparian habitat has improved spawning areas in the watershed
Management of phragmites and carp
Management of species at risk in the marshes
Funding for further opportunities to implement habitat restoration is limited
Further carp control necessary for Grindstone river mouth restoration
Quality of habitat is poor due to poor water quality
Climate change and high and low water levels all challenge our assumptions, targets and goals for what’s possible
BEACHES OPEN AT WEST END OF HARBOUR
City of Hamilton pursuing resolution to water quality issues at Bayfront Park
Some waterfowl management measures are continuing with hope for renewed and reliable approach to resolving issues/improving water quality at beaches
Water quality at the beaches has decreased in recent years
2016 closure of Bayfront beach and poor 2016 test results at Pier 4
WATER VIEWS AND AESTHETICS
Improved control of Hamilton’s combined sewers in real-time
Many non-BUI related clean-up programs and projects
Lack of clarity on needs for BUI delisting
FISH AND WILDLIFE POPULATIONS
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
Water quality improvements expected from upgrades at Woodward (under construction) and Dundas (planning stage) water treatment plants
Nearshore fish community remains impaired, dominated by non-native and pollution-tolerant species
Abundance of many native species is declining
Index of biotic integrity (IBI) is less than what’s required and hasn’t improved in many years
Threats include poor water quality, increasing diversity and abundance of non-native/invasive species, development in the watershed, and habitat degradation
RESTORE WILDLIFE POPULATIONS
Colonial bird community doing relatively well
Bald Eagles returned to nest and breed in the forest adjacent Cootes Paradise marsh
Some mammal species doing well (although not a BUI target)
Do we have the research and monitoring necessary to gauge progress towards BUI targets?
TOXIC CONTAMINANTS AND SEDIMENT
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
Are those things contaminated?
CLEAN UP CONTAMINATED SEDIMENT IN THE HARBOUR
Randle Reef – completion of the Environmental Containment Facility; anticipation of dredging and capping
Dofasco boat slip – selection of management options and environmental assessment process
Windermere Arm – characterization of sources of contaminated sediment... long time coming!
Strathearne Slip – characterization of sources of contaminated sediment... long time coming! This one in particular is the last known active source of PCBs
Most contaminants will remain exposed to the ecosystem for many years
Slow progress on most of these projects, however
Potential for additional sources to be discovered
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
Background report on wildlife data completed, although no reference material such as consumption guidelines
Despite remaining legacy toxic contamination issues, results of new science indicate relatively/mostly good news for birds, turtles and frogs
Continuing investment in the necessary science and connect status to delisting
Impacts of poor water quality/wastewater effluent in Cootes remains a threat
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
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
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
Improvements ongoing but further enhancements needed in coordination of research and monitoring
Need to improve the capacity for monitoring pollutants related to public health and BUIs
Need to know more about issues limiting fish and wildlife reproduction
Renewed emphasis on phosphorus and sediment, new reports and consensus recommendations
Need to improve the capacity for monitoring contaminants and nutrients related to water quality downstream and BUIs
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
Ontario to release updated Stormwater Management Planning and Design Manual in 2017 that will require the application of low-impact development techniques
Improved water quality resulting from a shift in farming practices
Rapid pace of development, limits on capacity and authority of regulatory and planning agencies
Lack of overall assessment or understanding of activities and impacts
COMPLETE AND IMPLEMENT WATERSHED PLANS AND WASTEWATER PLANS
Hamilton stormwater masterplan updated in 2007
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
REDUCE OR ELIMINATE DISCHARGES
City of Hamilton’s improved control of its combined sewers in real-time
PUBLIC INFORMATION, EDUCATION AND ACCESS
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
Subwatershed report cards
Multiple agency stewardship programming across the watershed
Measure of impact needed
INCREASE PUBLIC ACCESS TO THE HARBOUR SHORELINE
Some new physical access at Cootes, Valley Inn, Windermere
BARC's web app for self-directed tours and website research portal; BARC and RBG working on digital canoe routes
Beginning of implementation of West Harbour Recreational Master Plan and Setting Sail objectives for new residential development at Pier 8
Accurate measure of accessible shoreline needed, with improved information available at access points
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.)
Continued challenge of connecting downstream water quality issues with upstream human activities
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.
Download the 2017 Report Card
Get a copy of BARC's Toward Safe Harbour Report Card. Learn about the challenges and progress we've made in addressing issues around the Bay.
The Bay Area Restoration Council is a registered charitable non-profit organization. Formed in 1991, BARC represents the public interest in the restoration of Hamilton Harbour and its watershed. BARC is responsible for community engagement and educational activities in the implementation of the Hamilton Harbour Remedial Action Plan. BARC encourages public understanding and citizen action through school programs, volunteer participation, public workshops, evaluative reporting on current issues and opportunities for digital communications.