A twenty-year effort to improve water quality at Hamilton's waterfront parks has failed to make the park's beaches any safer for swimming.

Most years, the beaches at Pier 4 and Bayfront Parks are posted as unsafe for swimming half of every summer — more often than when they opened in the early 1990s.

Dangerously high levels of e-coli bacteria are the reason. And despite the best efforts of the City of Hamilton and other environmental stakeholders, few signs of significant improvement are in sight.

Since 2010 city water inspectors have deemed Bayfront beach and Pier 4 beach safe to swim in just 48 per cent of the time, according to figures supplied to CBC News by the city's Public Health department, and that trend has continued thus far this year.

'Would I swim in there? No, never. It doesn't seem clean.'— park user Peter Shi

As of August 16, Bayfront beach had been closed 45 days this season due to unacceptably high levels of E. coli.  The smaller Pier 4 beach had been closed seven times, a good result for the year, but not part of an overall improving trend for that location.

The water quality at Hamilton Harbour beaches is tested four times each week. According to the Public Health website, "a beach is considered not safe for swimming when an average of greater than 100 E.coli bacteria per 100 mL water were present" in samples.

The results are in stark contrast to the remainder of Hamilton beaches outside the bay, all of which have very high water quality levels.

The Lake Ontario beaches, for example — Beach Boulevard, Confederation Park and Van Wagners — have each been closed only one day this summer due to degraded water quality, and two Conservation beaches — Binbrook and Christie —have not been closed at all so far this year. Valens beach has been closed on four occasions.

Since 2010, the Lake Ontario and Conservation beaches have remained open over 90 per cent of the time.

Birds behind low water quality

Swimming in Hamilton's bay was banned by the Hamiton Harbour Commissioners in the 1930s because of unchecked industrial pollution and sewage. The harbor cleanup began in earnest in the 1980s tackling industrial discharges. When the parks opened their beaches in the early 1990s, they were heralded as a sign of significant progress in the cleanup of the harbor, with swimming in the bay once again possible.

That promise has not been realized and report cards on the progress of the cleanup continually cite the poor performance of the beaches as an area that needs work.

The answer to why the water quality at the Harbour beaches — and Bayfront in particular — is far worse than other Hamilton beaches is clear, according to John Hall.

"Birds. It's the birds."

Hall is a coordinator with Hamilton Harbour's Remedial Action Plan, the multi-stakeholder organization created in the 1980s to improve the harbour's environmental conditions.

He said that the water's high levels of E. coli are primarily the result of bird feces from Canada geese and seagulls.

Hall said that the birds are drawn to the area by the grass clippings from freshly mown lawns near the beaches.

"After the grass is mown, there is lots of grass for the birds to feed on.  Geese defecate every seven minutes, so if you multiply that by the number of geese that are regularly drawn to the area…"

Humans contribute significantly to the problem as well.

"People feed the birds, so the birds have lost their fear of people. Now they're attracted to people, in fact."

Adding to the bird-related problem is a circulation issue; water in that area of the Harbour area is not flushed out as thoroughly as it is in other beaches.

Scott Peck, director of watershed planning and engineering at the Hamilton Conservation Authority, said that the fecal matter in still waters can fester and spread, causing water quality levels to plummet.

He said that Conservation beaches are consistently clean because the beaches' "man-made reservoirs flush water through constantly."

Identifying the problems have been straightforward for the organizations tasked with improving water quality, but efforts to solve the problem have met with mixed results.

Many strategies

Over the years, a variety of measures designed to clean up the beaches have been implemented.

Chris McLaughlin, executive director of the Bay Area Restoration Council (BARC), said that his organization in 2008 launched a 'Don't Feed Waterfowl' campaign designed to dissuade park-goers from giving food to hungry birds.

BARC has also ringed the perimeter of the beaches with fences and buoy lines to prevent birds from swimming or waddling into areas designated for swimming.

Hamilton's Public Works department and Hamilton Conservation Authority have spent considerable energies raking the Harbour beaches to collect and dispose of bird droppings before they seep into the water, and installing catch basins to collect run-off water tainted with fecal matter.

And Hall said that his restoration team is planting rows of vegetation screens to "make the geese feel vulnerable to predators," but it has proven difficult to trick the wily geese. "The birds are really smart. They send guard geese up on a hill to survey the lay of the land."

Not me

On a warm sunny afternoon at Bayfront, the beach is deserted save for a collection of seagulls frolicking luxuriously in the surf. The only people in sight are two rollerbladers resting on a grassy patch that looks out over the water.

When asked if they would consider swimming in the Bayfront waters, the two immediately burst into laughter.

"I would never swim in there!" declares Allison Gowan, 25.  "I saw a family in there yesterday and I was like, 'are they crazy?'"

Gowan's friend, Helen Matias, 30, agrees.

"You would never get me in there."

Over at Pier 4 beach, a man and his daughter play in the sand near a large sign imploring beachgoers not to feed the birds.

"Would I swim in there? No, never," said Peter Shi. "It doesn't seem clean."

Asked if he would reconsider if inspectors found the waters at the harbour as consistently clean as Hamilton's other beaches, Shi frowns thoughtfully.

"If I got that kind of information, then I might say yes."

Shi squints out over the still blue water as his daughter sings at his feet.

"But I don't know."