We now know that the park doesn’t need a beach to suc­ceed

If we want swim­ming, Bayfront isn’t the an­swer

The Hamilton Spectator - - COMMENT - CHRIS MCLAUGH­LIN Chris McLaugh­lin is the ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Bay Area Restora­tion Coun­cil.

We walk, roll and glide along curv­ing paths as fresh breezes an­i­mate trees and bushes, fram­ing views of Hamil­ton Har­bour, where sailors and row­ers skim across blue wa­ters.

Bright swans, dart­ing swal­lows and red­winged black­birds draw the eye closer to shore and, from time to time, even a beaver comes into view.

From sun­rise to sun­set, peo­ple come to ex­er­cise, con­tem­plate, meet, laugh and catch fish at Bayfront Park.

Since 1993, the park has served as both hope­ful sym­bol and gen­uine re­al­ity of the har­bour’s re­cov­ery.

Once, de­vel­op­ers poured fill into the west har­bour to cre­ate land they could sell. In­stead, their plans were halted, the land was re­me­di­ated and their project be­came a place that ev­ery­one could share.

The open­ing of Bayfront Park was a dra­matic turn­around for gen­er­a­tions of Hamil­to­ni­ans who had grown up with al­most no ac­cess to their wa­ter­front, and lit­tle mo­ti­va­tion to play there any­way.

Since then, the en­tire har­bour has come a long way, and even be­fore the com­ple­tion of the Ran­dle Reef con­tain­ment project, much of the pol­lu­tion that caused the har­bour to be listed among the most toxic hot spots on the Great Lakes has been greatly re­duced.

The one thing we haven’t been able to do much at Bayfront Park is to go swim­ming.

The man-made penin­sula that is our park had opened with a promis­ing ex­per­i­ment: a beach. But few have been able to use it, so the per­pet­u­ally empty beach has be­come a sore point, lead­ing to a mu­nic­i­pal de­bate over what should hap­pen there.

There is al­most al­ways too much bac­te­ria at the beach to make it safe for swim­ming. In fact, the beach hasn’t met the har­bour’s Re­me­dial Ac­tion Plan tar­get for safe swim­ming since 1999, mostly be­cause geese and gulls use the shal­low wa­ter and soft sand there as their toi­let. Bac­te­ria get trapped in the wa­ter and wet sand, cre­at­ing a dis­gust­ing tea that has nowhere to go in its shel­tered cor­ner of the park.

With­out wind to cir­cu­late the wa­ter, or plants to pu­rify it, the beach re­mains un­safe for swim­ming, and its empty wa­ters and for­bid­ding signs sug­gest fail­ure in the har­bour.

In fact, sci­ence shows the op­po­site. Last sum­mer, the Bay Area Restora­tion Coun­cil along with col­leagues from McMaster Uni­ver­sity, En­vi­ron­ment and Cli­mate Change Canada and Royal Botan­i­cal Gar­dens gath­ered and an­a­lyzed dozens of wa­ter sam­ples for bac­te­ria, from every cor­ner of Hamil­ton Har­bour — or Burling­ton Bay, if you pre­fer. Ex­cept for a few sites, they came back well within safe lim­its for swim­ming.

We know for sure that the beach at Bayfront, as it turns out, is of­ten an ex­cep­tion, not the rule.

There may be bet­ter ways to get wet in our har­bour, such as deep-wa­ter swim­ming struc­tures. Or by putting more re­sources into the beach at nearby Pier 4 Park, where wind, and wa­ter-cir­cu­la­tion con­di­tions are much more favourable and where it would be much eas­ier to get more peo­ple safely into the wa­ter much more of­ten. There may be bet­ter investments to make so that there are places the pub­lic can swim safely in the har­bour.

Cer­tainly, decades of ac­tion to clean the wa­ter jus­ti­fies that we start plan­ning such op­por­tu­ni­ties.

Per­haps there is an easy way to con­trol the birds and clean the sand. But it might be time to let go of try­ing to make Bayfront Beach safe for swim­ming. It was a smaller ex­per­i­ment within the broader ex­per­i­ment of the park it­self. Though the beach may not work, we now know that the park doesn’t need a beach to suc­ceed.

It might even be time to let na­ture take over so the beach can be what it wants to be: a shal­low-wa­ter, nat­u­ral habi­tat that when nat­u­ral­ized, can speed up both the re­cov­ery of the har­bour and the re­cov­ery of its rep­u­ta­tion.

As the city pon­ders the re­port that it com­mis­sioned on the beach, it’s very im­por­tant to re­mem­ber that the har­bour is in much bet­ter shape than it was when Bayfront Park opened. And with great im­prove­ments to our sewage treat­ment plants com­pleted or in the works, we have the prom­ise of get­ting much bet­ter than that.

If Hamil­ton wants to go swim­ming in the har­bour, maybe it needs to pick a bet­ter spot than its man-made beach at Bayfront Park.

SCOTT GARD­NER, SPEC­TA­TOR FILE PHOTO

The beach at Bayfront Park in its typ­i­cal con­di­tion: not suit­able for swim­ming. Chris McLaugh­lin ar­gues it might be time for a dif­fer­ent di­rec­tion.

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