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Canadian (Nova Scotia) Ecological Disaster

The Avon River Causeway, Windsor, Nova Scotia is one of Canada's biggest man- made disasters.

The Friends of the Avon River (FAR) are about to level allegations that the Canadian Government is neglecting a priority salmon-producing river in Nova Scotia, Canada. The Avon River is not only home to the endangered Atlantic Salmon but also to the now endangered American Eel. FAR says, 'the Federal Minister of Fisheries and Oceans, Gail Shea has been shown more than enough evidence to cause alarm, but '[She] has her blinders on.'

The concerns revolve around the infamous Avon River Causeway, where in 1968 an ill-advised 'letter of approval' was given for the construction of a barrage barrier across the mouth of the Avon River, home to the highest tides in the world. Within a few years, many alarming changes occurred, becoming an ecological embarrassment which changed forever the way projects like these would be approached. The most visible changes are the formation of the huge Windsor-Mudflats immediately below the causeway, the rapid decline of the endangered, Atlantic Salmon and American Eel, as well as desecration of their 'critical habitat' on the lower and upper reaches of the river.

[Above:] The mudflats of Windsor can easily be seen from space, they choke the river for miles downstream, and they grow larger every year with no end in sight.

Background & History

In 1970 the Avon River was completely obstructed by a rock and earth fill causeway immediately downstream from Windsor at its junction with the St. Croix River as part of the development of a controlled access expressway called Highway 101.

The Avon River Causeway replaced an existing road bridge upriver from town and also resulted in the rerouting of the Dominion Atlantic Railway's Halifax-Yarmouth main line which used to run through Windsor's downtown, crossing the river on a bridge parallel to the road bridge immediately upriver from the town.

The causeway controls the Avon River's discharge and the incoming tidal waters of the Minas Basin through a series of flood control gates which are intended to regulate the river's flowage to prevent flooding of agricultural lands upriver near Martock. The section of the Avon River upriver of the causeway along the Windsor waterfront is now the freshwater Pesaquid Lake.

The construction of the causeway has dramatically affected the Avon River downstream from Windsor, with large parts of the once-navigable river now being obstructed by large mud flats and vegetation, owing to the lack of tidal exchange and freshwater discharge. The nature writer Harry Thurston has noted, "Almost before the last stone was put in place, sediment began to accumulate to an alarming rate - 5 to 14 centimetres per month. Within seven years, a four metre high island of silt formed on the seaward side of the causeway; and the effects were felt 20 kilometres downstream, where two metres of mud impaired navigation at Hantsport."

Researchers soon discovered that the mud flats had become a biological desert, devoid of life, as the sediments were too soft to support organisms. The need to monitor and assess the impacts of such changes gave impetus to a greater interest in Bay of Fundy ecosystem and the ultimate establishment of the Acadia Centre for Estuarine Research in Wolfville.

Recently announced plans for the expansion of Highway 101 between the Halifax Regional Municipality and the eastern end of the Annapolis Valley have raised concerns about maintaining the Avon River causeway. An environmental lobby group, Friends of the Avon River (FAR), has called for studies into the possibility of removing the causeway entirely and carrying the expressway and railway line on a new bridge, allowing the natural flow of the river course to be reestablished. FAR has also recently begun to oppose the expansion of gypsum quarries within the river's watershed because of threats to river life, citing the use de-watering runoff from the quarries.

A decision in August 2007 by the New Brunswick government to remove a similar causeway (constructed in 1968) blocking the Petitcodiac River, another tribuatary of the Bay of Fundy, to avoid facing charges under the federal Fisheries Act, is expected to have ramnifications for the Avon River causeway.

A government hired expert team (AMEC) who assessed the Petitcodiac River in New Brunswick, Canada (for a similar problem). The team visited the causeway in Nova Scotia and clearly documented, "there is no proper fish passageway at the Avon River Causeway". The Friends of Avon River group wants this changed.

For the past seven years, the FAR group has been asking the Minister to treat this river just like they did on the Petitcodiac River, in New Brunswick. There, a 'comprehensive environmental impact assessment study' was conducted to explore whether or not the barrier should be opened, so free tidal-flow could again take place. Every scientific field involved, from fish biologists to sedimentologists agreed the only solution was to have the barrier opened.

Everyone can agree the Avon River Causeway is a detriment to the waterway. Dr. Mike Brylinsky, a research associate at the Acadia Centre for Estuarine Research in Wolfville, Nova Scotia, is quoted in a 2006 press release written by Wendy Elliot, (The Kentville Advertiser) saying, "hindsight has determined that the Avon River causeway should not have been built, but the fact remains it was."

"It's pretty obvious to anyone with their thinking-cap on. The Canadian Government just approved about $70-million dollars on the Petitcodiac. They seriously don't want anyone to know that they're turning a blind eye on the only other river, which faces this identical situation. They already know what the fix is going to entail, because the Avon River is a virtual mirror image of the Petitcodiac problem." --Ms. Wood.

As well, tributaries like the St. Croix , Kennetcook and Cogmagun Rivers (also salmon producing rivers) are being stressed by the same barrage barrier.

"Minister Shea is side-stepping this environmental embarrassment just like the previous Minister did. When will she entrusted to protecting our fisheries stop playing games with this issue", says chair of the FAR group, Sonja Wood.

"There is NO PROPER fish-passageway at the causeway on the infamous salmon and eel producing Avon River. For the past seven years FAR has been trying to get Fisheries Ministers to order a preliminary study (like the one that started the ball rolling at the Petitcodiac) for the Avon River, but the answer is still "no", say's Ms Wood. This is what the citizens action group feels is absolutely beyond the pale.

[Above: According to Hank Kolstee (DoA), he was standing in three feet of water here while droves of fishes were rushing past against his legs. The NS Department of Agriculture manages these gates, and only open them to do maintenance work or to lower the water in ‘the lake’. Open them, and fish will come. Keep them closed during fish migrations, and the river will die.

Manager, Hank Kolstee (DoA) and gate-keeper, Ken Carroll admitted, "...they know for a fact there are salmon in this river and Ken actually had friends that caught salmon just last spring (2006)..." He said this in the presence of Department of Fisheries area manager, Gus Van Helvoort, and FAR group member, Chris Mansky. A few minutes later Gus VanHelvoort of the Department of Fisheries was asked if he heard these officials admit this, and he agreed he had. But he requested both Sonja Wood and Chris Mansky not to reveal these comments to the press. Instead, he would have these gentlemen admit this to a room of Department of Fisheries officials. This was not done, and was apparently just a hush tactic from the Fisheries department.

Meanwhile a study into fish populations and the environment of the Avon River already exists. In 2005, Dalhousie environmental scientist Lisa Isaacman wrote her Masters' Thesis on the history of this watershed, and her conclusions are very revealing. She shows how the Fisheries officials were less than commendable in their actions in 1968 when the causeway was being requested.

It appears the river had greater numbers of fish than they reported on, and the decision to allow construction was corrupted by special interests in the region who wanted the causeway at all costs. Isaacman also details the impact of the causeway, and questions the validity of any of the 'fish-counts' done in recent years.

The writing is there on the wall, and Minister Shea has received copies of this Thesis. However, the Minister will not acknowledge the existence of this scientific document to the group that's asking her to read it.

Instead, the Department of Fisheries has for three-years shunted the FAR group and their concerns off to the "inner Bay of Fundy salmon-recovery team", whose concern for the salmon is focused on "rivers of priority". In 2006, Department of Fisheries drafted a document entitled "Rationale for Inner Bay of Fundy Salmon Priority Rivers for Recovery". This document admits the salmon-producing potential of the Avon river, but ranks it lowest amongst all the 50 "priority rivers", largely because it would be so costly to fix.

This, as discussed below, is just scare-talk -- something to put a negative spin to the Avon River rescue notion. In as such, "Rationale..." is a piece of junk scientifically, and not worth the paper it is written on. This comes as no surprise to the FAR group, because the authors of that paper all work for the province, primarily for the Department of Fisheries.

Any help that is to come to this 'river in distress' will not come from the Provincial level Department of Fisheries, but rather the Federal one. This is one little piece of wisdom we have gained from our colleagues who've won their 'just cause' on the Petitcodiac, in New Brunswick. "Time is truly running out here," says Sonja, "because of the highway 101 twinning project, we are facing a time when changes are going to be made to this structure. If we don't get it right this time, when will government want to revisit the obvious or will they? Or will it be like our own MP Scott Brison ill-advisably told us in 2005, that we should 'wait until the causeway totally kills the river (so you have all your proof), then sue the government."

FAR group recommends the Department of Fisheries stop crying this would be too costly

This twinning is a blessing in disquise to the FAR group. The Department of Transportation have announced they will be building a 6-lane bridge to cross the active channel at that critical part of the causeway the group calls 'the sluicegates'. The bridge will be no impediment to the tides should the offending 'gates' be opened to allow free tidal flow.

"The project just became far less costly because the highway is building its bridge already. This means the return to free tidal flow can be had at about a third of the cost, because it will only be a matter of demolishing these gates, widening the opening through now-unused stretch of causeway, and refurbishing the now-dilapitated dykes and seawalls. An engineer can tell you this is very doable, and definitely technically and economically feasible."

The Department of Fisheries 'Science-Advice' report (Amiro, et al, 2006) therefore supports the recovery of the Avon River. Their wording suggests we expand to the 'priority 4' rivers after covering all the 1-3 rated rivers. The FAR group reiterates this is wrong thinking for 'Science Advice', since the highway twinning should be our trigger to do something once and for all. In relation to this project, an Environmental Impact Statement is currently being prepared.

"This EA should be far broader than the one Gail Shea is implementing," says Wood. With millions of dollars going to be spent to build a bridge at the channel where there is an existing sluice gate (not a suitable fish passage) the group recommends this be the time to spend Provincial/Federal monies correctly and repair this critically horrific mess.

"The fact this Minister fought so passionately for fish in Prince Edward Island, and can now turn her back on the Atlantic Salmon, American Eel, and their 'critical habitats' in Nova Scotia, tells me she’s not the woman for the job. She has effectively become 'the Rona Ambrose of Fisheries and Oceans'. All we really want is for her to shoulder the responsibility. She needs to stop pushing this issue off onto committees that have other agendas and seriously put this issue under the microscope for a minute."

The causeway belongs to Dept of Agriculture, the Dept. of Transportation is building a bridge and widening the causeway, and the Dept. of Fisheries is responsible for fish passageway and the protection of the endangered Atlantic salmon. All of these are federally related issues and will be cost shared by the Province of NS. Therefore, there are three departments to withdraw monies.

A Positive Spin:

"Windsor will truly become the magnificent gateway to the Valley. The town will receive a face-lift, and return to its seaside identity. The acclamation to the Town of Windsor for having reversed the hands of time on the 'fastest and highest' rising tides in the world, and for recovering the critical habitat of these endangered Atlantic Salmon and American Eel, will be commendable and inspirational to an environmentally-aware world..." --offers Sonja.


Viewzone || Comments?

Comments from readers:

Just read the story about the Avon River..very interesting,, you need to dramatically ratchet up the noise about this....and drive this message forward....

What role is the new NS provincial government playing in this ?

What plans do you have for getting this story out to a mass audience ?

How much time is left to do something about this ?

and where does one go to find out more or to join your group ...

I thought FAR had disbanded so it was a surprise to receive an e-mail recently with a link to that web story....


The Friends of the Avon River (FAR) are still alive and kicking, we have been requesting the 'new' NDP Fisheries Minister, Sterling Belliveau 'shoulder up' to this project and support our efforts by writing to the Federal DFO Minister, Gail Shea in order to begin the Comprehensive Environmental Impact Assessment. This will show the truth about the disaster happening on the Avon River Watershed and the stress to the endangered Atlantic Salmon and American Eel and their ‘critical habitats'.

Like the past Conservative Government, NDP Minister Belliveau is not interested in stepping up to the plate, but instead wants to 'wait and see' what the Department of Transportation (DoT) is going to propose in their EA report (due this Fall). We are still waiting for this document and have been reassured it will be finalized this Fall.

We know it is not D0T's responsibility to be concerned about fish or fish passageway, but instead, to twin the causeway as quickly, and cost efficiently as possible.

According to DFO, 'until the DoT's EA and the twinning project is actually on our desk, there is no reason for us to do anything'.

As soon as FAR has this document from the DoT, we will inform our members AND FAR will need all the support we can 'muster'!!!!

We will have approx 30 days to review and scrutinize the Report and we will be looking forward to the opinions of our Members. Tell Everyone!!!!!!

Help RAISE the Volume!!!!!

It looks like our Government's plan is to push the Hwy 101, twinning project through quickly and continue to turn a ‘blind eye’ to this Man-Made Disaster.

For updates check FAR's facebook site: Save the Avon River