The installation of sewer overflow tanks is doing little to improve the quality of Chedoke Creek, described as “far and away” the most contaminated waterway running into Hamilton Harbour.
Tys Theysmeyer, an ecologist with the Royal Botanical Gardens and Bay Area Restoration Council director, said testing conducted in 2011 as part of efforts to clean up the harbour found “nasty” fecal contamination by the creek’s escarpment waterfalls.
Coliform counts per 100 millilitres of water ranged from 5,000 to as high as 150,000, he said. By comparison, the provincial guideline for swimming water is 100.
“It’s more like sewage,” Theysmeyer said of the branches of creek that spill over the escarpment by the rail trail, often giving off a telltale stench on their way to the harbour via Cootes Paradise.
“I think it will emerge as the next real challenge” for cleaning up the bay, he said. “First you take off the obvious nasty things, and then where do you stand? I think we’re going to find there’s some second level of nasty things that maybe weren’t expected.”
Theysmeyer said he’s not sure what is causing the contamination, but he’s heard some Mountain subdivisions may have inadvertently hooked their sewage into stormwater lines.
Determining if that’s the case is up to the city or Ministry of the Environment, he said.
“As you build sewer overflow tanks, if the river concentrations that you measure actually are still nasty, then there must be something else,” Theysmeyer said. “We’re up to the ‘What’s going on?’ question stage.”
Mountain Councillor Terry Whitehead, whose Ward 8 is home to the creek’s upper reaches, said he’s not surprised to hear Chedoke Creek is contaminated but is “a little shocked by the extent of the problem.”
“Obviously we’re going to have to embark on experts to go in there and do the full-fledged analysis and hopefully determine the best they can the contributors to those readings and then put an action plan in place to address it,” he said.
Whitehead said the city has already done some smoke testing in the wake of flooding problems on the Mountain and determined there are illegal hookups.
He said council is studying whether to offer financial incentives to homeowners to fix the problem because many of the hookups passed city inspections.
“They bought their house in good faith and all of a sudden they find themselves in a situation where they have a financial liability,” Whitehead said.
“That is a very complex matter that has to be resolved. In my opinion, you can’t penalize the homeowners because in most cases the homeowners wouldn’t have known that that was the case. It was the builder.”
Councillor Brian McHattie, whose Ward 1 stretch of Chedoke Creek receives the upper-city runoff, said illegal hookups in older Mountain subdivisions seem like the obvious source of the “massive” contamination.
He agrees the city needs to consider helping unsuspecting homeowners fix the hookups.
“It’s not their fault. The contractor did it,” he said. “I think we really probably need to come up with a program, like with the lead pipe program, to assist people to do the right thing because the ramifications on E. coli numbers downstream are highly significant.”