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Conservationists harbour hope for Cootes Paradise

Hamilton cannot afford to lose its wetland.

Cootes Paradise is home to 35 endangered species and is essential for the health of Lake Ontario. It is where most of the lake’s fish are born as well as a major stopping place for migratory birds.

It has been the focus of a massive 30-year-long plight to restore and conserve Hamilton’s waterfront. Unfortunately, the battle seems to be perpetually uphill. Click through the timeline below to better understand the current situation in Cootes Paradise.

The spill

The best way to understand the severity of the 2014 to 2018 sewage spill is to understand how important wetlands are for the Hamilton Harbour biome.

“So, the water has to pass through Cootes Paradise to get to Hamilton Harbour and that is the water in the west part of Hamilton Harbour,” Tys Theysmeyer, Royal Botanical Garden’s Head of Natural Areas, said. “The shallows that are Cootes Paradise are the nursery for the life that you see in Hamilton Harbour.”

A sewage spill into a natural area like Cootes Paradise is a lot like knocking over a row of dominos, starting at the bottom of the food chain. The first thing to go, according to Theysmeyer, was the plant life.

“Cootes Paradise had been dramatically improving prior to the spill,” Theysmeyer said. “But it was basically a wipe out.”

A young man stands in mud up to his knees and pulls a plant with muddy hands.

A volunteer with the Bay Area Restoration Council pulls invasive species from the Canala West plant site in 2018.

The next big impact was on the insects, which the birds and turtles rely on for food, and freshwater clams, which live off of algae and filter bacteria. Freshwater clams and vegetation both play a vital role in filtering the water that enters Cootes Paradise through its tributary streams. By losing plants and freshwater clams, the sediment and pollution in the water grows, which poses another risk to the health of an already sick harbour.

Despite these serious consequences, the City of Hamilton has done nothing about Cootes Paradise since the initial spill.

The Ministry of Environment, Conservation and Parks charged the City of Hamilton on Dec. 9 2020 for the sewage spill.

“A ‘do nothing approach’ is unacceptable and does not address the potential for adverse effect as required by the Environmental Protection Act,” Lindsay Davidson, a representative of MECP, said in an email to Ignite News.

The solution

The Chedoke Creek spill was a blow to the restoration effort, but in the three years since the valve was closed, the Royal Botanical Garden has continued replanting the marshes. Click the locations on the map below to see the areas of impact and planting sites.

Theysmeyer’s outlook on the future of the wetland is “Only positive, 100 per cent positive.”

A sign of this bright future for Cootes Paradise is in Hamilton’s students.

A volunteer waist deep in water with a plant in his hand.

A volunteer with the Bay Area Restoration Council wades through waste deep water to plant in 2017.

This past year, the Bay Area Restoration Council was able to take its grade school and high school programs online and continue teaching students in Hamilton about conservation and the watershed. They were able to offer volunteer planting trips out to the marshland in Cootes Paradise in the summer and fall, despite COVID-19 setbacks.

Even COVID seems to have a bright side for Hamilton’s conservation.

“This year, so many more people are hiking,” Christine Bowen, programs coordinator with the BARC, said. “I think that COVID has actually benefitted us in that way, in that more people are connecting with the harbour.”

Theysmeyer also noted this shift in the public’s attitude.

“What was probably the most striking thing about the spill and reporting of it was the scale of concern in the community. That is something that would not have been true 20 years ago,” Theysmeyer said. “They will not accept this kind of situation anymore. They want the waterfront. They want the water.”

Anyone from the public can volunteer with the BARC to put their boots in the mud and help replant the vegetation lost in the Chedoke Creek spill, but an even bigger way to help, according to Theysmeyer, is to hold your local representatives accountable for the health of Cootes Paradise and the restoration of Hamilton’s waterfront.

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