Sawmill River

The Sawmill River now flows through an underground culvert. (Spacing Atlantic)

The public may want to talk about the Sawmill River, but local authorities aren’t quite ready to hear it.

A town hall style meeting is planned for Tuesday evening on the idea of exposing the tail end of the Shubie Canal, which has been piped underneath downtown Dartmouth since the early 1970s.

MP Robert Chisholm is hosting the meeting. His office sent out 3,000 to 4,000 automated calls to constituents on Monday to announce it, says his spokesperson, Matthew Spurway.

However, who will make the final decision is complicated, and the various bodies involved haven’t finished looking into how they would coordinate.

'You need someone to lead'

Advocates for the proposal say the overlapping jurisdictions make it hard to work within the system and that their vision will hinge on finding public support.

“Halifax Water, it's their pipe, but it's the HRM’s park that's over top of it,” said Sam Austin, an urban planner who has been lobbying for the canal.

“You need someone to lead.”

Halifax Water is in charge of the piped waterway, which carries water from Sullivan’s Pond to the harbour.

The pipes need to be replaced and the water authority is in the “final design phases” of how to design new, buried pipes, says spokesperson James Campbell.

He says Halifax Water has had long discussions with Fisheries and Oceans Canada, which requires certain new features so fish can spawn.

Halifax Water is aware of the proposal to expose the canal, which has been floated for years, but Campbell said it is limited by Halifax Regional Council, which owns most of the land that would line an exposed canal.

“We have pretty limited options with where our easement is,” he said.

In November, Dartmouth councillors requested a municipal staff report on the issue at a Dartmouth community council meeting. That report hasn’t come back yet.

In the meantime, Halifax Water won’t send representatives to the Tuesday meeting.

“It's all kind of premature until we have the report from Harbour East Community Council,” said Campbell.

'We have to have the money to do it'

Coun. Gloria McCluskey (Dartmouth Centre) says she remembers the old canal fondly, but it may not be within regional council’s power to bring it back — and that there’s little an MP like Robert Chisholm can do, short of finding federal money.

“People enjoyed having it there, and I can remember walking out there and hearing the water, and it was such a wonderful sound,” she said.

“I really hope that this can go, but it has to [involve] Halifax Water, and we have to have the money to do it.”

There are more groups at stake in the decision. Environmental groups are lobbying in favour of it, but in November, the Shubenacadie Canal Commission said it didn’t support the most recent proposal, since the proposed route for the canal would threaten the marine railway and other historic sites.

Halifax Water wasn’t planning to begin the pipe replacement work this season, says Campbell. However, the canal commission is planning work this year on the railway site, creating time pressure for the Sawmill River decision.

Campbell says if the water authority did decide exposing the canal was feasible, it would ultimately need to make a case to the Utilities and Review Board that the spending was in ratepayers’ interest.