Nova Scotia

Avon River Causeway future up in the air

Wednesday is the deadline for a petition to ensure proper restoration of a fishway before any construction can begin on Highway 101.

Wednesday is the deadline for the petition which had 720 signatures Tuesday night

Avon Causeway Highway 101 twinning is undergoing its eighth study. (CBC)

For nearly 50 years the Avon River Causeway has done its job — protecting the nearby Town of Windsor, N.S., from flooding by the world's highest tides.

But the gates controlling the flow of the Avon River above the town have blocked fish passage and led to a build up of mud flats and siltation upstream.

Activist Sonja Wood said the causeway is a plug that must be removed.

'A huge disaster'

"It has created a huge disaster along the shoreline in this huge watershed," said Wood, with the group Friends of the Avon River.

Sponsored by NDP MP Fin Donnelly (Port Moody-Coquitlam, B.C.), Wood has petitioned the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans to ensure the proper restoration of the fishway prior to any construction on Highway 101, the Nova Scotia highway that runs on top of the causeway at Windsor.

Wood argues the causeway and spreading siltation blocks passage of Atlantic salmon and American eel at the inner reaches of the Bay of Fundy.

The petition deadline is Wednesday. The federal government has 45 days to respond to the petition, which has garnered 720 signatures.

Twinning back on the agenda

For 20 years, successive Nova Scotia governments have talked about twinning the highway but have not been able to decide what to do with the causeway.

"Today would that [causeway] be possible? I don't know," said local Liberal MLA Chuck Porter. "To me, it's about making something safe for the driving public."

Next month a liaison committee will begin examining twinning nine kilometres of Highway 101 from Garlands Crossing to Falmouth. The section includes the causeway and sluice gates built in 1968.

Porter said the solution may not involve twinning but purchasing adjacent rail property to widen the causeway and include concrete barriers between east and west lanes.

The gates, Porter said, can be upgraded to deal with fish environmental concerns.

"I'm sure at some point infrastructure has to be changed, brought up to speed," said Porter.

Transportation refusing interviews

Nova Scotia's Department of Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal refused an interview request from CBC News to answer questions about the environmental challenges posed by the causeway. 

Since 2003 provincial governments have commissioned seven separate studies on issues surrounding the causeway, including a 2009 draft environmental assessment, which the department refuses to release.

The department claimed it can't answer questions because it's currently carrying out yet another environmental assessment, triggered because twinning will affect more than two hectares of salt marsh.  

Counting on Feds to act

Wood said she has no faith in the provincial government. She said the federal government is legally obligated to protect at risk species like inner Bay of Fundy Atlantic salmon and American eel. She wants the Department of Fisheries and Oceans to carry out its own assessment of the area.

"That study will tell us how to mitigate this problem, it will tell us what is happening within this watershed as a result of this barrage barrier and how to fix it," she said.

DFO is not taking the bait.

Spokesperson David Jennings said DFO has not received a design from the province. When it does it will ensure plans contain legally required fish passage.

No easy answers

The issue is not simple. Studies have noted a positive side effect of those growing mudflats: the creation of a large and beneficial salt marsh.

Modifications to the gates have allowed Gaspereau to migrate past the causeway during the spring.

Whatever the fate of the causeway, Windsor would be regularly inundated without some barrier.

"If that gate isn't there, where we are standing would be wet," said Porter outside his Gerrish Street office in downtown Windsor.

Petitcodiac solution

Wood has been championing twinning Highway 101 since a crash left her confined to a wheelchair.

She is urging the government to consider adding a tidal water opening like the one put in the Petitcodiac River near Moncton in 2010.

That project restored tidal flows at a cost of $68-million.

About the Author

Paul Withers

Reporter

Paul Withers is an award-winning journalist whose career started in the 1970s as a cartoonist. He has been covering Nova Scotia politics for more than 20 years.