WINDSOR, N.S. – It’s still technically in the early stages, but debate rages on regarding what should be done with the causeway/aboiteau portion of the Highway 101 twinning project.
The small portion of an otherwise major infrastructure overhaul has become a painful bottleneck of issues and concerns for many in the surrounding area.
Layered on top of a jurisdictional nightmare revolving around the federal Department of Fisheries obligations and provincial priorities for improving road safety and protecting communities from rising sea level, local groups and citizens are divided on what should be done next.
What about fish passage? What about protecting Lake Pisiquid? What about First Nations? What about recreation? What about communities up river? Down river?
It’s a stage in the process where it seems there are more questions than answers.
On Oct. 10, citizens had their say during two open house sessions at the Windsor Legion.
The provincial transportation department’s unenviable task is to collect all of that feedback and somehow incorporate it into a plan that will satisfy at least some of the stakeholders.
Justin Tanner, manager of highway planning and design for Nova Scotia’s Department of Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal, said they are still in the public consultation phase of the project.
“What we’ve done with our consultants at CBCL is come up with a number of options,” Tanner said. “We haven’t chosen anything yet. What we’re here to do is inform the public on what (the options) are and what the impacts might be.”
They’re also collecting feedback, Tanner says, to help inform the government on their decision as they go forward.
So far, the province has revealed four preliminary designs for a new aboiteau structure:
Option A – Maintain freshwater reservoir, with controlled fishway. This was deemed likely untenable because of a lack of improved fish passage.
Option B – Maintain freshwater reservoir, with controlled fishway and pumping of lake water to maximize fish passage. This option was also deemed unlikely due to the amount of water needed to properly pump the fish ladders.
Option C – Controlled/partial tidal exchange, with open fish passage and dedicated fishways. It would allow restricted tidal flow and open up the Avon River. Fish could come and go freely 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, but it would drastically change Lake Pisiquid. Lake levels would change an estimated two to seven feet below current levels. This was previously seen as the most likely scenario.
Option D – Maintain freshwater lake and improve fish passage. Adaptable design and water management system, to accommodate future changes. The latest design, described as a ‘hybrid option’ uses a multi-gate system and enhanced fish passage system to maintain lake levels and general freshness, while also improving fish passage conditions. This has been described as a potential compromise scenario that would meet some, although not all, of the stakeholder’s concerns.
“We’re definitely hearing concerns about the lake, they don’t want to see lake levels impacted or muddy water coming in,” Tanner said. “At the same time, we’re also hearing concerns about fish passage, and they’re kind of competing interests.”
“It’s a challenge to maintain the lake and significantly improve fish passage,” he said. “We’re hoping to hear more on those key issues and refine our design options as best we can to hopefully please everybody and have a balanced solution.”
Tanner said the province is also required to meet certain legal obligations for this project, including a mandate to improve fish passage.
“Part of that is satisfying DFO (federal depart of fisheries and oceans) that we have improved fish passage, how much that will be, we don’t know at this point,” he said. “They will not dictate how much fish passage we need to provide, we go to them with a proposal and they will either approve or reject it.”
He said they’ve also been actively consulting with various First Nations communities, as recently as the day before the open house.
“They have a lot of interest in this area and they would like us to maximize fish passage as much as possible,” he said.
The department will now examine all of the feedback they’ve received from the past several weeks to determine the next steps.
More consultation is possible down the road, he said, although perhaps not to this extent.
Residents weigh in
Windsor resident Rick Smith said there was a lot to take in, with several maps, placards and materials shown around the room.
“I think having an information session this afternoon and again this evening gives people the opportunity to come out an ask questions,” Smith said. “That in itself is going to better inform them about what’s taking place and what the options are.”
Smith said that, at least from what he’s seen, the province is trying to balance the concerns of maintaining Lake Pisiquid and improving fish passage.
“The department has done their homework and they know how they’re going to build that highway,” he said. “In terms of the aboiteau, I think most people that are looking at this are hoping to have the lake at a reasonable level and keeping it primarily a fresh water lake.”
Save Our Lake campaign
Windsor Mayor Anna Allen said she’s not surprised that this issue has caused a wedge in the community.
“It seems to me, we’ve been through a divided community before and hopefully most people’s confidence will be in the thing that’s being done,” Allen said. “Council’s priority is definitely protecting the lake and enhancing fish passage.”
“They’re working really hard to accomplish that.”
Save Our Lake posters have popped up across storefront windows in downtown Windsor, and Allen said that shows how closely people are watching this issue.
“It’s brought a lot of awareness to this issue and if people don’t know what’s going on, they don’t say anything, so that’s a good thing.”
Jocelyne Marchand, a resident of Grand Pré, said she came to the meeting because she’s interested in the local ecosystem.
“I have friends who depend on the Minas Basin for their livelihood and I’ve been following this issue for a long time,” Marchand said. “I have lived here long enough to see the changes to the north side of the causeway.”
Marchand said the region could learn a lot from the Petitcodiac River example in New Brunswick.
In that scenario, a causeway, built in the 1960s, came down completely in 2017 and was replaced by a bridge, which restored tidal flow. The river passes by the city of Moncton.
“I travel to Moncton quite frequently, and there hasn’t been any major catastrophe, like what people are worried about here,” she said. “A tidal river has its own ways with dealing with surges.”
Marchand said she’d like the Petitcodiac Riverkeeper, a non-profit organization that rallied for the freeing of that river, to bring their knowledge and experience to bear on the Avon River.
Local fisherman Darren Porter said he’s still frustrated over the process after deputy minister Paul LaFleche said they would scrap Option C without consulting First Nations.
“This is being done to accommodate the political will of some in the community, which circumvents the process,” Porter said. “This is supposed to be an evidence-based decision, not decision-based evidence manufacturing.”
Porter said First Nations groups and others were happy with Option C because it opened up the river to restricted tidal flow, which would allow fish to flow more freely.
“They’ve taken the pressure off themselves and are now trying to make the fisheries and First Nations look like the bad guys,” he said. “Option D removes the fight until later, until construction is complete.”
Porter said he would be one of the biggest “losers” if Option C goes ahead, losing his usual fishing spot. But he’s still in favour of it.
The province will refine their designs before conducting more consultation, eventually picking an option.
Funding requirements haven’t been determined at this time.