PEI

Ducks Unlimited, nearby landowners disagree on future of Johnstons River dam

Ducks Unlimited wants to remove a dam and fish ladder at Johnstons River, saying the structure is reaching the end of its lifespan. But nearby homeowners and farmers are worried about what the new water levels will mean for their properties.

'If there was no homes involved, that might be an easier conversation to have'

Tom Duffy, Ducks Unlimited's manager of Atlantic operations, said reconstructing the dam and water control structure would cost around $750,000, and more money would be needed to manage it for another 50 to 70 years. (Nancy Russell/CBC)

Ducks Unlimited wants to remove a dam and fish ladder at Johnstons River, saying the structure is reaching the end of its lifespan.

But nearby homeowners and farmers are worried higher water levels could harm their properties.

Ducks Unlimited Canada said the federal government built the dam in 1950. The group took over the management of the wetland in 1971 and installed a water control structure, to let fish pass from one side to the other.

Salt and fresh water are able to mix because of the fish ladder, said Duffy. That can lead to a buildup of algae that creates a strong odour as it becomes anoxic, in a process that can harm fish and other wildlife. (Jonathan Platts/Ducks Unlimited Canada)

"The steel and the concrete in that structure is now starting to break down and we know that sometime between now and the next three years, that either has to be removed or replaced," said Tom Duffy, DU's manager of Atlantic operations.

"So we've made a recommendation that we actually remove that water control structure, and actually breach the dam, allowing tide to re-enter this marsh for the first time in 70 years."

Algae and anoxic

Duffy said the wetland at Johnstons River — about 12 kilometres east of Charlottetown — has had issues for years.

"In order to comply with various regulations, particularly the Fisheries Act, you have to provide fish passage and in this case, you get a lot of mixing of salt and fresh water," Duffy said.

"From that perspective, it can create a number of ecological issues. One of them is a large buildup of algae, the project going anoxic, which is absence of oxygen, and it can create a strong odour and not a very suitable spot for wildlife or fish." 

Ducks Unlimited says it has struggled for years with the buildup of algae on Johnstons River. (Jonathan Platts/Ducks Unlimited Canada )

Duffy said reconstructing the dam and water control structure would cost around $750,000, plus an estimated $375,000 to maintain it for 50 years, for a total of more than $1 million. 

He also said there are a number of landowners who do not want to see the dam rebuilt, preferring to see the marsh naturalized instead, so they would not be willing to sign a conservation agreement to let the project go ahead.

Tom Duffy said some local landowners have been calling since the late 1980s for measures to naturalize the marsh and return it to saltwater. (Shane Hennessey/CBC)

Concerned landowners

Sidney MacEwen, the MLA for Morell-Donagh, said he's been hearing from property owners in the area near the marsh. He said more than 20 could be affected and some are concerned about the impact on their land.

"The dam was put in place to create farmland, and then over the past 30, 40 years, we've had people build on that land as well," MacEwen said.

Some homeowners near the Johnstons River dam worry about what the new water levels would mean for their properties if the dam were to be breached. (Shane Hennessey/CBC)

The issue was discussed at a public meeting in January hosted by the Hillsborough River Association.

"If there was no homes involved, that might be an easier conversation to have. But there are homes involved, so as far as me being the MLA and the representative for these people, I think their homes and properties need to come first. We need to protect them as much as we can."

Some farmers near the Johnston River dam are concerned about what would happen if it was removed. The dam has been in place since 1950. (Shane Hennessey/CBC )

MacEwen said he's looking for other options, if Ducks Unlimited is not willing to replace the dam. 

"They have a management plan to manage the dam right now, so the legalities of who owns it, and who manages it, has to be figured out," he said. 

"But what I've done is started the conversations with the Department of Environment and the Department of Transportation to say, if Ducks Unlimited decides that they're not going to replace it, what can we do as a province?" 

The MLA suggested the province could partner with the federal government to look at replacing the dam. 

Sidney MacEwen, MLA for Morell-Donagh, says he's been hearing from property owners in the area around the marsh. He says more than 20 could potentially be affected. (Shane Hennessey/CBC)

Status quo 'not an option'

Duffy said Ducks Unlimited is now researching the properties around the marsh and looking at the specific concerns for each one. 

"We've been pretty consistent in our message… we are starting the process now and not likely breaching the dam until at least two years out," Duffy said

"In that time, we would like to work with those individual landowners, and the provincial government, to see if there are ways to mitigate some of those issues." 

Duffy said there are a number of landowners who do not want to see the dam rebuilt, preferring to see the marsh naturalized. He told CBC they would not be willing to sign a conservation agreement for a replacement project to go ahead. (Nancy Russell/CBC)

Duffy said compensation for landowners is not something that Ducks Unlimited could provide, as a charitable organization, but that there are precedents for compensation with other provincial projects such as widening causeways.

Duffy said doing nothing with the dam leaves it vulnerable to breaching on its own.

"We're at a point really in our history with this dam that the status quo is not an option," Duffy said. 

"It either has to be removed and breached, or rebuilt, but rebuilding it does not provide [permanent] protection from tidal surge. And I think that's a point that has been missed."

More from CBC P.E.I.

About the Author

Nancy Russell has been a reporter with CBC since 1987, in Whitehorse, Winnipeg, Toronto and Charlottetown. When not on the job, she spends her time on the water or in the gym rowing, or walking her dog. Nancy.Russell@cbc.ca

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