By Richard Leitner • METROLAND WEST MEDIA GROUP
Illegal sewer hookups are once again being blamed as the likely source of “super high levels” of fecal contamination at three escarpment waterfalls along Chedoke Creek.
Biweekly tests by Redeemer University College chemistry students this fall found the worst pollution at Mountview Falls, whose flows run beneath the stretch of Chedoke radial trail where the city installed a new pedestrian bridge in January.
Coliform counts there averaged 342,000 per 100 ml of water and were as high as one million – the latter more than 400 times the provincial limit of 2,400.
Readings for E. coli were also highest there, averaging 550 times the limit for recreational use, as were those for other indicators of sewage, like phosphate, nitrate, ammonium and biological oxygen demand.
Testing at waterfalls to the east – by the escarpment stairs at Cliffview Park and the eastern edge of Chedoke golf course – also found fecal contamination of up to 100 times the provincial limit.
“These falls are disgusting sometimes,” said Greg Beekman, one of 10 students who conducted the tests as part of a class project.
He said the results are consistent with an initial hypothesis that contamination would be worst downstream of older housing surveys on the Mountain suspected of having illegal sewer hookups.
Testing of two waterfalls downstream of newer, smaller surveys to the west – by Scenic Park and in Iroquoia Heights Conservation Area – found far less pollution.
Beekman said while the city is aware some homes in the older surveys may have been built with sewage lines connected to storm sewer, rather than sanitary sewer, fixing the problem is costly and complex.
But he said all city residents should be concerned because the contamination poses a potential health threat and Chedoke Creek flows into Cootes Paradise and Hamilton Harbour, contributing to algae blooms that smother aquatic life.
The situation is also not helping Hamilton’s bid to rebrand itself as the City of Waterfalls, he added.
“The waterfalls are too contaminated to even touch,” Beekman said. “I, myself, before I did these tests, would go and play in these waterfalls and climb them, whatever, not knowing there was a problem, but obviously it’s not safe.”
The latest tests amplify ones conducted last year as part of the remedial action plan on the harbour. They recorded coliform counts of up to 150,000.
Tys Theysmeyer, a Royal Botanical Gardens ecologist who is involved in efforts to rehabilitate Cootes Paradise and the harbour, said the students’ “tremendous work” signals the importance of addressing a problem common to older municipalities.
He said one of the biggest challenges is to get people to accept that the city will have to spend more money to properly manage Hamilton’s water.
“I know that at the city they’re struggling with the situation that we haven’t valued clean water very much,” Theysmeyer said. “At the end of the day, water is the most important thing to life. Without water, you can’t live. You can’t beat that one.”
Mark Bainbridge, who oversees the city’s harbour cleanup efforts, acknowledged illegal sewer hookups are the likely cause of the Chedoke contamination and said an ongoing pilot project is trying to identify the scope of the problem.
He said fixing a connection can cost $15,000 per home, making it an expensive proposition because the pilot program is also assessing two other areas, including by Red Hill Creek.
Bainbridge said the city has corrected about 50 hookups so far and the students’ test results can help create the public awareness to support further action.
“It is going to be a slow, methodical process to figure this out,” he said, noting the city has done a variety of tests in sewers to try to find improper hookups. “It’s not going to be a simple, clear and easy fix.”