It's been 23 years since Bob Morrow and his city council created Bayfront Beach, a man-made horseshoe at Bayfront Park designated for swimming.

And despite Public Health this week declaring it should be closed over unsafe water quality, the former mayor still isn't ready to give up on the dream of Hamiltonians being able to take a dip in their harbour.

Hamilton Public Health officials have recommended closing the beach, calling it "not suitable" as a recreation area. Officially to be closed for the year, the department says it shouldn't reopen until the problem of unsafe water quality is solved.

But the harbour restoration effort has been trying to do that for the past two decades, without success.

'We should keep trying to clean it up and keep investing.' - Bob Morrow, former mayor

The Public Health report raises the question: with the area marred by E. coli and blue green algae, and unsafe for swimming more often than not, is it time to give up the dream of swimming in the bay?

Morrow, a vocal champion of a cleaner harbour in his time in office, says no.

"We should keep trying to clean it up and keep investing," he said.

People can walk and cycle there, and enjoy the outdoors there. But swimming needs to be part of it, he said.

"It's all part of a clean harbour."

That quest — to make the bay a spot where families take their kids to swim, where sunbathers bob in up to their necks, where fish species flourish — has been going on for generations.

A 'most beautiful septic tank'

Swimming in the harbour was officially banned in the 1930s. In 1958, a Toronto urban planning professor called Hamilton's bay "the world's largest and most beautiful septic tank," says a Hamilton Spectator article from 2002. That was five years after the bay spent most of a summer "ringed by an oil slick 'from canal to canal, from shore to shore.'"

"That summer, it gleamed from the thick oil and bubbled from the gases created by decaying human waste," the article says.


Bayfront Beach hasn't met the Hamilton Harbour Remedial Action Plan's water quality criteria since 1999. (File photo)

In 1987, the International Joint Commission identified the harbour as one of 43 troubled areas, and a remedial action plan was born.

The plan, hugely successful in so many of its goals, has found the highly-symbolic target of making it clean enough for swimming frustratingly elusive. 

There has been progress and the overall water quality in the harbour is vastly improved as the harbour cleanup recorded significant successes. Recent leaps forward include upgrades to the city's Woodward Avenue water treatment plant, and the impending clean up of Randle Reef, a massive underwater coal tar deposit.

There have been high profile events over the years to show that swimming there is possible. Morrow jumped into the water on a dare from local media in the 1980s — and survived. Former MP Sheila Copps swam there to much fanfare in the 1990s.

In 1993, Morrow's council opened Bayfront Park —on lands reclaimed from a former landfill — to give Hamiltonians more access to the harbour. Bayfront Beach stemmed from a remedial action plan recommendation.

The beach is symbolic of the health of the harbour, Morrow said. It's improving, so let's keep going. 

Those darn geese

"I don't think we ever want to give up on trying to clean it up," he said.

But the e-coli issues at the beach and in the waters close to it have proven unsolvable so far, despite a variety of efforts tried over the years.

Public Health says the causes of beach pollution are as follows:

  • The presence of Canada geese and gulls.
  • Poor water circulation.
  • Surface water runoff onto the beach.
  • The slope of the beach.
  • Moisture of the beach sand and proximity to the water table.

Public Health is doing a water quality study with the help of AECOM Canada Engineering Consultants. The city will hold public consultations, then do a study due by the end of summer.

The city expects recommendations as early as 2017.

Have your say

What do you think, Hamilton? Do you agree with Bob Morrow that the city should keep trying to fix the beach? Or should it give up altogether? Let us know what you think in the comments, or tweet to us at @CBCHamilton.

Read what others have to say below. | @SamCraggsCBC