HANTSPORT, NS - Drive into Hantsport along the William Hall VC Memorial Highway, just off Highway 101, and you’ll notice something seems off about the land surrounding the Halfway River.
Normally lush and green this time of year, the area around the river banks are brown, muddy and covered with sediment. Many of the trees and other vegetation are either dead or dying.
It might not look great, but not everyone is convinced it’s a bad thing. With the collapse of the aboiteau at the head of Halfway River last winter, saltwater is re-entering the Halfway through a tidal flow.
Fish are flowing back in as well.
A terrible mess, or a beautiful thing?
Darren Porter, spokesman for the Avon River fishery, said despite how ugly the land around the Halfway River looks right now, it could turn into a vibrant and healthy saltwater marsh in a few years.
Speaking via cell phone, from just off the Avon River causeway in Windsor, Porter said the accidental fish passage is a first for West Hants.
“The farmland is being reclaimed, it’s going back to salt marsh,” Darren said. “Farmland has taken up about 80 per cent of the historic salt marshes, which means all of the animals, birds and insects that depend on those have been depleted.”
The fisherman, originally from the Hantsport area, referenced the no net loss aspect of the Federal Policy on Wetland Conservation, adopted in 1991, to ensure no net loss of wetland functions.
The policy dictates that if wetland waters are destroyed by development or for agriculture, more need to rebuilt or reclaimed elsewhere. It’s often replaced by a two-to-one ratio because of the importance of the habitat.
“What you’re seeing, a muddy mess, is essentially the reclamation of an ecosystem,” he said. “We have a problem in West Hants, we have zero full-time fish passage from salt to fresh in any of our man-made barriers.”
Porter’s not concerned about the infrastructure being impacted by the tidal flow, but said if the province is looking to rebuild or upgrade those roads anyways, it would be best for the area.
“Should the taxpayers fix that problem? Right now, the problem is fixed,” he said. “They’ll have to upgrade those bridges anyway that will allow for more carrying capacity for trucks. Is that a bad thing?”
Porter said he’s noticed a huge increase in the number of fish running up the Halfway River this year already.
“Let’s make this into a tourist thing, lets document and show off this reclamation,” he said. “Why wouldn’t we?”
A happy medium
The West Hants councillor representing the district of Hantsport, Robbie Zwicker, said he’d like to see something done to stem the tide - literally.
“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” Zwicker said. “The wasteland you see out on the dike is disgusting, it’s a horrible entrance to the community.”
The smell, he added, isn’t much better.
Zwicker said he’d like to maintain the status quo over the last decade: a restricted tidal flow.
“Fish were already able to get through because the check valve aspect of the aboiteau hasn’t been working for a number of years, so fish had been able to migrate, although not completely,” he said. “I think that’s a happy medium, it should help the fish habitats return and also protects the community infrastructure and the appearance of the community.”
Zwicker suggested something like a large box culvert may be enough to restrict the flow to prevent the high tides the river has recently seen.
“I’m hoping the province will step in and put some infrastructure in,” he said. “At minimum, restrict the tidal flow into the delta of the Halfway River and protect the community.”
Significant infrastructure work would be required if nothing is done, he added.
“It would be silly for them to raise the roads, raise the bridges, the Highway 101 bridge,” he said. “I think it would be a lot less expensive to put a fix in place right here at the aboiteau instead.”
Cemetery, HMCC at Risk
Judson Porter, president of the Hantsport and Area Historical Society, said the community is concerned about what the loss of the aboiteau could mean for the nearby Riverbank Cemetery, located next to the river.
“We certainly have a concern of the potential of that bank eroding, and if it erodes, there will be some problems,” Porter said. “If you take a look up there, you can actually see just how close some of those graves are to the river side.”
After the town of Hantsport dissolved and became part of the Municipality of West Hants, the cemetery fell under the municipality’s parks and recreation department umbrella.
Jane Davis, a member of the board of directors at the Hantsport Memorial Community Centre, the main recreational hub for the surrounding area, has already seen increased erosion on their land that abuts the river.
“We’ve been watching for erosion along the banks after the aboiteau started to breach, which would have been last fall,” Davis said. “As the breach got wider and wider, with each high tide, the force of the water coming in and around the HMCC property was coming in with a greater force.”
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Davis said the super tides that took place in January and February served as a wake-up call for the board of directors.
“We’ve lost some trees, which have either meandered under the bridge and ended up on the field as you’re coming into town, or have gone out to the Avon River itself; we actually saw one up against causeway in Windsor,” she said. “As the trees have come down, they’re what’s holding the bank stable.”
Just above the bank in question are two playing fields and a running track, which HMCC operates. She said the erosion could put those well-used facilities out of commission if it gets worse.
“There will come a point in time, if this isn’t fixed pretty quickly, that we will have to demarcate an area around the top of the bank that will no longer be accessible,” she said. “Of course, it will impact those using the running track, but it’ll also impact those teams that rely on the ball fields.
“This isn’t just and HMCC problem, it’s a Hantsport and area problem.”
Davis said it’s incumbent on the province to fix the aboiteau now and worry about who pays the bill later.
Province looking into it
Hants West MLA Chuck Porter said he’s been working on the file since the aboiteau failed.
“I have visited the site many times both at high and low tide and have had many conversations with the Minister (of TIR) and the deputy,” Porter said. “The deputy has been down a few times as well along with the government engineers and other senior officials.”
Porter said that the legal issues between the province and the railroad company are ongoing, with the department continuing to assess their options.
Lloyd Hines, Nova Scotia’s transportation minister, is expected to visit the site in the near future.
Marla MacInnis, a media representative from TIR, said the department has had discussions with surrounding land owners about purchasing parcels of land, but has not yet purchased any land officially.
TIR has also completed surveying and preliminary engineering work on a potential redesign of the bridge or roadway if that work is determined to be necessary in the future, MacInnis said.
The province established a deadline for Bob Schmidt, the owner and president of the Windsor and Hantsport Railway Company Limited, to address the aboiteau issue by mid-July, with the possibility of fines or criminal charges if nothing is done.
Schmidt has previously disputed that it’s his problem to deal with the issue.