After two decades of slow progress, restoration of Cootes Paradise takes a giant leap forward
Mother Nature pressed fast-forward this summer on the decades-long recovery of the most important fish spawning marsh this side of Lake Ontario.
But if you don't routinely paddle and peer into the water of Cootes Paradise, you probably missed it.
"I went for a paddle in June and presto — it looked like we had practically regrown half the marsh," said Tys Theysmeyer, head of natural lands for the Royal Botanical Gardens.
It was a startling development for an agency that has worked since 1993 to restore the ill-treated water body at the west end of Hamilton Harbour, where pollution, flushed silt and voracious carp had all but wiped out vegetation in the once-teeming wetland.
When we started restoration, there were two water lilies left here.
Royal Botanical Gardens
Over two decades, sewage control efforts, a $2.3-million carp barrier and replanting of cattails, water lilies and wild rice have added at least a hectare of plant life each year to the barren underwater landscape.
The goal is to transform what now looks like a shallow lake into a true wetland, with the only open water a channel between Spencer Creek and the harbour.
Last year, a little more than a quarter of the 250-hectare watery expanse was growing. This spring, Theysmeyer's battered green canoe glided over underwater plants emerging throughout the western half of the marsh.
He attributed the botanical bonanza in part to a late spring and influx of clean snowmelt that kept surface algae at bay and gave underwater plants a chance to play catch-up.
The murky water of late summer made submerged progress harder to see on a followup paddle Tuesday. But an explosion of water lilies along the shoreline is hard to miss.
"When we started restoration, there were two water lilies left here. Literally, two in the whole marsh," said Theysmeyer, pointing with his paddle Tuesday to a shallow inlet carpeted in the distinctive circular plants and delicate white flowers.
"They've doubled in population every year since — but when you start with two, it takes a while to notice the difference."
The underwater plants and floating lily pads make for a slow paddle. That's also good news, he said, because it will eventually slow the waves undermining the shoreline.
It should also translate into more fish for all of western Lake Ontario. In the 1800s, hundreds of thousands of fish spawned in Cootes. Last year, spawning run counts topped out at around 13,000 — still four times higher than numbers recorded in 1997.
Progress in Cootes is rarely straight forward, however.
Summer storms have buried some of those new spring plants with silt flushed from urban construction projects or eroding streams. It's still unclear how many will survive.
"When then you get a big storm, the sediment starts clogging things up, blocking out the sunlight," said John Hall, co-ordinator for the harbour's Remedial Action Plan.
Now that hundreds of millions of dollars are committed to the harbour's two biggest polluters — Randle Reef and an aging sewage treatment plant — Hall said controlling silt will be a "major priority."