There's something growing in the industrial heart of Hamilton.
It's down by the mouth of Red Hill Creek, nestled under the QEW and starting to bloom in the shadow of Triple M Metals' billowing smoke stacks.
The Windermere Basin started out a pre-industrial wetland, but has been a polluted mess since the 1950s. That's changing.
It's a strange about-face on the way humanity usually does things: more oftten than not, wetlands end up destroyed in industrial areas. In Hamilton, crews are creating one of their own.A few dozen people were given a tour of the basin Saturday. (Adam Carter/CBC)
The soon-to-be wetland site isn't usually accessible to the public. But on Saturday, officials took a few dozen people in to see what they're building.
It's not easy to get there. The basin is locked behind two security gates, covered in barbed wire.
Truth be told, it's not much to look at just yet. But when you consider the significance of what's coming, the Windermere Basin project is a staggering achievement.
“It's not every day that someone builds Great Lake coastal wetland,” engineer and project manager John Helka told the amassed crowd. “It should be a beautiful area in the next five to ten years.”
He says this with some optimism, as the area hasn't been beautiful in decades. It had been abused by chemicals, sewage overflows, landfill leaks and eroded sediment for years.
The harbour became so busy in the '50s that the basin was converted into a sediment trap to protect it. It was all downhill from there.
“It has taken decades to screw up the harbour as bad as it is,” said Bay Area Restoration Council Executive Director Chris McLaughlin. “Steel Mills didn't happen overnight.”
He's not kidding. Hamilton Harbour is also home to the turgid Randle Reef, the worst coal tar contaminated site in Canada.
“The recovery we're hoping for won't happen overnight either,” McLaughlin said.
But the recovery is coming.
Crews installed pumps to drain the basin, then dumped about 20,000 loads of clay into it.John Helka is the project manager for the Windermere Basin project. (Adam Carter/CBC)
Using a huge excavator with ballast tanks dubbed a “swamp buggy,” Helka and company started to reshape the basin. The ballast tanks let the huge tractor stay afloat when driving over water.
They molded the landscape, and constructed a fishway to let fish swim in and out of the basin when needed. They can also use the pumps and fishway to remove invasive species — carp is a huge concern in this area.
A harris hawk was used to keep migratory birds away from the area, too. They'll be welcomed back when the area is finally a wetland — but for now, they'd only disrupt the construction process.
A whopping 23,000 trees have been planted around the basin, too. “We'll have a big, forested backdrop here in the next few years,” Helka said.
Then there are the beaver fences. Seems that once beavers end up in the wetland, they'll try to dam up the water spouts for the pumps — so fences had to be constructed to keep the little buggers out.
But the weirdest thing about the basin is definitely the “sponge effect.” Or pudding effect. They haven't really decided on a name yet.
Looks like ground, feels like ground — but if you jump on it, it bubbles up like a mini-trampoline. The whole basin isn't like this, but there are pockets that are. It's trippy, to say the least.
When they brought in the geotextile to cover the basin, then covered it with soft sediments and a clay cap, certain sections bubbled up.
“We wanted a uniform design,” Helka said, “But in the end, that's not a wetland.”
So the pudding stays.
As one would expect, this isn't a cheap project. Costs run in the $20 million range, with $13.8 million of that coming from the federal and provincial government. The city is kicking in the rest.
The city will also have to pick up the tab for limited harbour dredging for Red Hill silt that won't be trapped in the basin anymore — to the tune of $7 million each time.
But to hear McLaughlin tell it, Hamilton will get something out of this project that easily offsets the cost.
“People come here on vacation, rent a car drive over the bridge and see this,” he said, gesturing to the plumes of white smoke coming out of the smokestacks surrounding the basin.
“But you can't see James North from there. You can't see Cootes or the University. You can't see Hamilton — not really,” he said.
“But with this, it's like we could say to people, 'Hey, you know that thing you always drive by?'”
“Here's what it can really do.”