Everyone knows that Hamilton Harbour, also known as Burlington Bay, has some unique issues. What you may not know is that with such a large amount of rain this year, these issues resulted in some unanticipated surprises.

  • Rock wall at the drowned-out fishway that helped protect Cootes Paradise Marsh from carp entry. Photo credit: Julie Vanden Byllaardt (Hamilton Harbour Remedial Action Plan Office)
  • Waterfront Trail damage in July 2017. Photo credit: Julie Vanden Byllaardt (Hamilton Harbour Remedial Action Plan Office)
  • A disappearing bird island. Photo credit: Hannah Clyde and Adam Grottoli (McMaster University)
  • Santa making a splash in the Harbour. Photo credit: Hannah Clyde and Adam Grottoli (McMaster University)

Some of the surprises were humorous: the Hamilton wastewater treatment plants had visitors in the spring. Water levels were so high that fish were able to enter the overflow pipes (in the combined sewer overflow system) that under normal circumstances would prevent flooding in peoples’ basements after heavy rainfall. The fish swam to the gate where water enters the plant to be treated. The uninvited guests were specifically Common Carp, which makes sense because they are strong swimmers and excellent explorers.

On the other side of the bay, Santa went for a swim. In Hamilton Harbour we have man-made islands that serve as habitat for colonial waterbirds. We have partners that manage the islands to maintain a healthy balance of native birds and those that tend to not share the space, such as Double-Crested Cormorants. A dancing lawn Santa is set up every year to scare the easily-spooked cormorants, freeing up space for Herring Gulls. When the winds kicked up this year, the waves overtook Santa and he went for a dip.

Humour aside, there were also some unfortunate consequences to the high water levels. When the water levels rose, the islands where birds nest diminished or disappeared completely. The lost space meant that the birds could not nest, and migrated to the shores—which may have been a nuisance to nearby homeowners but more importantly, disrupted important ecological processes.

Those same sneaky common carp were almost able to cross the fishway barrier that normally prevents them from swimming into Cootes Paradise Marsh. Luckily, the Royal Botanical Gardens’ staff prevented the invasion by building a rock wall in the areas where carp could navigate. It is ideal to keep carp out of the marsh because they muck up the bottom as they search for food, which makes it difficult for other fish and plants to live.

High water levels had impacts on industry too. Ships sat higher up in the water than normal so there were difficulties and delays in getting cargo on and off ships at the various industrial sites along the south shore of the Harbour.

And if that weren’t bad enough, things took an ugly turn.

Since the water was so high, the wastewater treatment plants were taking on water directly from the Harbour. Operations had no choice but to treat the water as if it were sewage. Needless to say they were working at capacity for a while.

You may have noticed very brown water flowing in your nearby creeks and streams. It’s not what you think! When we have heavy rains as we did this year, the water becomes so forceful in a river that it erodes the riverbank. The erosion tints the water brown until it dilutes with cleaner water downstream. Moreover, when the wind picked up during a storm, the suction power of the waves pulled out the asphalt of the waterfront walkways, creating extensive damage along the harbour trails.

Not only was the water in our creeks and streams looking unappealing, but there was a large die-off of plants in Cootes Paradise. The majority of plants in Cootes Paradise Marsh could not grow tall enough to reach the surface for much needed sunlight. Who knew that aquatic plants could have too much water? Plant life had flourished over recent years, which was pivotal for establishing fish habitat as well as absorbing phosphorus in the water that would otherwise feed and nourish algal blooms.  The die-off was devastating for the ecological health of the marsh.

What happened this year? A conscious decision was made to hold back water in Lake Ontario in order to allow the water from the Ottawa Valley to drain out the St. Lawrence River first, preventing flooding to downstream Montreal. When precipitation eased up, the dams were opened to full capacity to allow Lake Ontario and essentially all the Great Lakes to drain excess water as they normally would.

Although the past year looks bleak, a small sliver of good news, is that we don’t expect the water levels to be this high every year. Climate change is real and will influence future water levels, but we are learning from our experiences now on how we can prepare for the future and there are many actions in the works to help us better adapt to extreme fluctuations in precipitation and water levels. For example, The Ministry of Environment and Climate Change will release Low Impact Development Guidelines which will steer responsible management of water resources at the source. Rather than water being carried straight to a storm sewer and eventually the lake, homeowners and developers can design projects to infiltrate water in the ground – where it would have gone before we paved over the land. They can be as simple as a rain garden or as complicated as an underground water retention system. Conservation Halton hosts educational and reimbursement programs to help homeowners get started.

Groups that promote keeping lands in their natural state, such as the Cootes to Escarpment EcoPark System, are also helping to soak up some of the water through the ground, trees and other plant life. Every year the Bay Area Restoration Council and the Royal Botanical Gardens host a planting event in Cootes Paradise Marsh. A call for volunteers comes out late summer, so you can literally have a hand in how the Harbour recovers. Come get your hands dirty!

Visit HamiltonHarbour.ca for event listings and information about the Hamilton Harbour Remedial Action Plan.

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Last modified: November 29, 2017

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