Clean water matters most, says Hamilton's eco award winner

RBG naturalist Tys Theysmeyer is this year's recipient of the Dr. Victor Cecilioni Award for the Environmentalist of the Year, which recognizes efforts to improve the environment in the local community.

Aquatic ecologist involved in habitat restoration efforts in Hamilton Harbour, Cootes Paradise

Tys Theysmeyer, seen in this 2007 photo with a channel catfish he caught from the Cootes Paradise Fishway, is the recipient of the Dr. Victor Cecilioni Award for the Environmentalist of the Year. (Supplied by Tys Theysmeyer)

Tys Theysmeyer has always been a fan of water. 

Growing up near the St. Lawrence River, he discovered his interest in water at a young age before going on to pursue a career as an aquatic ecologist.

Now the head of natural lands at the Royal Botanical Gardens, the 44-year-old is this year's recipient of the Dr. Victor Cecilioni Award for the Environmentalist of the Year, which recognizes efforts to improve the environment in the local community.

Over the past two decades, Theysmeyer has been involved in habitat restoration efforts in Hamilton Harbour and Cootes Paradise, as well as the bald eagle nesting project

Theysmeyer talks to CBC Hamilton about his career, his passion for water, and his prediction for Hamilton's environmental future. 

Q: What motivated you to start a career in environment?

A: When I was growing up on the St. Lawrence River, I saw so many of the critters that were living in the river just disappearing. I thought I have to something about it because people have to take action. That's where it all starts.

Q: You are an aquatic ecologist by training. What's your expertise?

A: I have a good background understanding on how everything goes together to make the water environment works, such as water currents, water chemistry, animal behaviours, water cycle and all of these things.

Q: Which is more interesting? Plants, animals, or people?

A: That's a tough question. I suppose I would say animals are the most interesting just because of their reliance on the environment and just observing their behaviours.

Q: What is Hamilton's biggest environmental success?

A: It is the near-total renovation of the sewer system, which sends well-treated, clean water into the natural environment, which then spins off into all sorts of interesting things.

The project has been ongoing for a little while. But it wasn't that long ago where there was billions of litres of untreated sewage going into the local waterway every year and a whole lot of other sewage that just wasn't treated that well.

You are only as good as the water you have. We are all water-based people in the end even if we don't spend time in the water. So if your water isn't clean, nothing else works. 

Q: What is Hamilton's biggest environmental challenge?

A: It's got to be dealing with all the brown fields — places where industry was and now maybe isn't, but the ground is contaminated whether it's underground or above ground. Cleaning them up is quite expensive. The thing that happens is you'll move your business to an area where you don't have to clean it up, which means the central part of Hamilton becomes difficult to function.

Q: What are some of the solutions for the so-called brown fields?

A: It comes down to an investment at the upper government level, levelling the playing field again for everybody. The contaminants are not just on the land, but they are in the water. They are everywhere. They have the ability to affect the food chain and so on. 

Q: What is your forecast for Hamilton's environmental future?

A: Extremely positive. There's some really good land use planning that was done a long time ago and is starting to pay dividends. It goes back to water again. There's a large chunk of Hamilton that's well preserved and protected and that's now part of the green part. The largest portion of water that flows into Lake Ontario through the Hamilton area.

So you have an industrial area, an environmental area and an agricultural area. It's just very nicely set up. I'm very optimistic.

Q: What advice do you have for students or young people who want to pursue a career in environment?

A: The more knowledge you have, the more successful you'll be. So biology, chemistry physics, geography, all these things are what makes a difference.

Q: How can community members help the environment?

A: You can do things on your own property, be it planting gardens with native plants or, more importantly, taking your roof runoff or driveway runoff and infiltrating it into the ground and sending it where it should go instead of down the sewer pipe. And get out, hike and see the world around you.   

The interview has been slightly edited for length and flow.