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Vol. 4, No. 3


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More dams razed, many more to go  (cont'd)

Hot spot on the Petitcodiac

While there are no official programs or plans to remove dams in the Bay of Fundy region, few river barriers have caused more contention than the Petitcodiac Causeway. Built in 1967 to protect farmlands upstream from flooding and as a highway linking Moncton and Riverview, the causeway has obstructed the tidal flow, resulting in a massive pile up of mud below the causeway, and the creation of a large headpond upstream, now called Lake Petitcodiac. Studies have since shown a loss of anadromous fish stocks and the devastation of a once lucrative shad fishery downstream.

The few attempts to correct the situation, such as the temporary opening of the causeway's gates, have done little to placate parties on either side of the issue. Strong opposition to opening the causeway gates to allow for tidal flow has come from residents who value the freshwater ecosystem created by the causeway and use it for recreation. Advocates for restoring the river to its natural state include Daniel LeBlanc of Petitcodiac Riverkeepers. The group has long argued that the causeway is slowly killing the river along with many fish species that once thrived in its waters. 

LeBlanc has developed a $20 million proposal (U.S. $13.2 million) to restore the 21 kilometers (13 miles) of river upstream from the causeway. The plan recommends opening the gates to allow water to flow freely and constructing a partial bridge to replace one third to one half of the causeway. The measures, LeBlanc says, would bring the Petitcodiac back to 85 to 90 percent of full tidal flow before the construction of the causeway. 

Late last summer, Fisheries and Oceans Minister Herb Dhaliwal appointed Eugene J. Niles, a management consultant and a former regional director general of the Gulf Region of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, to examine whether to re-open the river to its natural tidal flow. As a specialist in mediation, Niles says he hopes to break the stalemate over the causeway by speaking with the Riverkeepers and other stakeholders, and will use the information to assess the ailing Petitcodiac. 

"My hope is that by the end of the exercise I will have narrowed everything down to one to three options that will allow fish passage and restoration to the river," he says. His report is due to the Minister in February. 

Meanwhile, DFO has been promoting opening the gates on smaller causeways in the province, as a way to gauge how it might affect farmlands above and below the barriers. Denis Hach, a habitat assessment engineer for DFO, says the trial openings of gates on four causeways have been successful and caused little impact to farmlands. The largest of the causeways sits on the Memramcook, a tidal river that flows into Shepody Bay and the head of the upper Bay of Fundy. Like the Petitcodiac, the Memramcook supported large runs of shad, sea trout and Atlantic salmon until the causeway was built in 1970. 

But unlike the discord surrounding the Petitcodiac, which has stymied restoration efforts for years, Haché says the idea is to work with smaller, less populated communities supportive of actions to revive the river. Though farmers along the Memramcook feared that opening the gates would cause flooding, after two successful trial openings this year and last, "All of those end of the world predictions just didn't happen," Haché says.

He adds that the more success he has correcting the smaller causeways, the better it is for the Petitcodiac. "The bad news is that the Petitcodiac is the most overstudied, dying ecosystem in Canada. The good news is that with all this knowledge, this is a river we can restore into Canada's premier river restoration project. But we have to act now."

While dam removal projects overall continue to get wide public support throughout the Gulf of Maine region, Murch of the Maine DEP, says that residents using the deep headponds created by the dams to fish, boat and swim have started to oppose altering the man-made ecosystems. He adds that smaller communities without a municipal water supply may need the ponds to control fires, and that the dams also increase the water level in wetlands upstream, which supports habitat for wildlife.

"People forget that these dams may have been there for 150 years and have become a part of the community's life," he says. "It all comes down to a question of environmental restoration versus environmental management. What do we want to do with these structures? And what purpose do they serve in our communities?"