Nova Scotia

Bridgewater Elementary student may help end raw sewage in LaHave River

Stella Bowles, a 12-year-old girl from Dayspring, N.S., may be too young to vote, but she's making it difficult for authorities to continue to ignore a decades-old 'environmental disaster.'

12-year-old Stella Bowles says straight pipes discharging raw sewage into the river is 'sad and disturbing'

Stella Bowle's elementary science project has caught fire on social media after months of posting water samples she's collected from the LaHave River that show extremely high levels of fecal bacteria. (CBC)

A 12-year-old girl from Nova Scotia's South Shore is too young to vote, but she's making it difficult for authorities to continue to ignore a decades-old "environmental disaster."

Stella Bowles, who lives in Dayspring, did an elementary school science project that has taken off on social media and helped drive a campaign to end the discharge of raw sewage into one of Nova Scotia's most beautiful rivers.

"It's pretty sad and disturbing," Bowles said.

The Bridgewater Elementary student has been sampling the LaHave River since November and posting the results on a Facebook page. She has been garnering tens of thousands of hits, hundreds of shares and responses from all over the world.

"I would like to see change happen so I will be able to swim in my river," she said. 

The results — that enterococcus bacteria levels at four sampling locations exceed Health Canada guidelines — have been validated by a government laboratory. Results from samples taken from the LaHave River in the town of Bridgewater were too high to count.

'We can do something about it'

Her data is having an impact according to both environmentalists and politicians.

"What Stella has done is put a living face to this. She has brought this to another level of understanding and support," said Don Downe, mayor of the Municipality of the District of Lunenburg.

Mayor of the Municipality of the District of Lunenburg Don Downe says Bowles's efforts are something to aspire to. (CBC)

On March 8, the district of Lunenburg council will discuss whether to proceed with a program to eliminate the suspected source of much of the fecal bacteria pollution — 600 so-called straight pipes that discharge raw sewage into the river.

"This is an environmental disaster. This water is so bad. Not only can you not swim in it, can't boat in it. They are saying now you should not even touch the water. It's that contaminated," Downe told CBC News.

The municipality is considering whether to put the project forward for joint federal and provincial infrastructure funding. Removing the straight pipes would cost about $13.1 million.

The district would manage the removal program and bill homeowners over a ten-year period for the cost of their new septic system. That's expected to run between $5,000 to $8,000.

"I don't want a river that is contaminated and nor does she. She is saying to the world we can fix this. We can do something about it," Downe said. 

Federal and provincial authorities have ignored previous attempts to persuade action against sewage dumping in the river. (CBC)

Illegal activity ignored by authorities 

The discharge of raw sewage into the LaHave River through straight pipes is illegal — but federal and provincial authorities have looked the other way for decades.

"We were testing the river on a regular basis. We posted our results, nobody paid any attention," said David
Maxwell, a retired doctor who serves as a science adviser for Stella Bowles.

Bowles is using the same citizen sampling kit Maxwell used in a project for the Bluenose Coastal Action Foundation.

"It's not the official government laboratory because the official government didn't want to do any testing. So we did it ourselves. It cost less, but we did send off parallel samples to a government lab to verify our results are consistent with what you get in an accredited laboratory and they were," Maxwell said. 

Bowles's samples confirm earlier results. She collected them from Shipyards Landing in Bridgewater, at the local yacht club and in front of her home in Upper LaHave.

"I can't believe this has been going on for so long. You would have thought somebody would have stepped in to try and help it," Bowles said.

Bowles heads down to the LaHave River to collect a sample. (CBC)

Complain and we'll look into it, province says 

The Nova Scotia Department of Environment says individual property owners are responsible to ensure that they have adequate on-site sewage systems to treat sewage and that they're properly maintained.

"If a member of the public has reason to believe that an on-site septic system may be malfunctioning, they should contact the Department of Environment to file a report and we will look into it," said spokeswoman Heather Fairbairn in an emailed statement.

"We appreciate the attention that Stella's project has given to this very important subject," Fairbairn said.


Paul Withers


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.