Originally published in the Chronicle Herald on May 27, 2021
Imagine a sunny Saturday afternoon on the beautiful Northwest Arm of Halifax.
There are sailboats catching the wind, kayakers paddling, lobster fishers pulling traps, and families enjoying leisure time on the shore at the Dingle beach.
In the water, there are seals, mackerel, squid and even the occasional minke whale. Overhead are bald eagles, merganser ducks, hawks, Canada geese and cormorants. On the seabed cling mussels, urchins and starfish.
Now imagine this scene if one-third of that water surface on the Northwest Arm just disappeared?
What would happen with the boat navigation, birds and sea life? What would the disappearance of that much water surface do to currents and tidal behaviours in the Arm? How would the seabed change? What would become of lobster breeding and fish spawning habitats?
How would a narrower Arm be impacted by storms or hurricanes like Juan with so much less space for the water to move around?
This may sound like something from science fiction. It is not.
Chunks of the Northwest Arm have already disappeared and more of the water surface will disappear in the future if property owners unnecessarily fill the water adjacent to their land with rock and other materials.
Private owners vs. public assets
Numerous properties along Halifax’s Northwest Arm include a “water lot,” which is deeded to the property owner adjacent to the water. These water lots are portions of the seabed that extend outward from the shoreline.
The practice of infilling is essentially an act of enlarging the land of a private property owner by filling the seabed with rock, concrete and other materials.
Governance of these water lots is complex. The current approach is piecemeal and there is a lack of coordination between federal, provincial and municipal governments.
Infill permitting is not covered by municipal bylaws nor by provincial environmental laws. Municipal bylaws can only regulate what can be built on an infill after the fact.
Instead, Northwest Arm coastline infilling falls under federal jurisdiction as the result of rules that pre-date Confederation in 1867.
Specifically, water lot development falls under the Navigable Waters Act of Transport Canada. The Fisheries Act, administered by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, has the ability to review an infill project and consider the impact to fish and fish habitat.
Not a new phenomenon
Infilling of the coastline has been taking place for more than half a century along many of Nova Scotia’s coasts. The practice has been used to construct wharves and docks for boats.
In a small body of water like the Northwest Arm, and in the face of climate change and rising water levels, there are urgent issues to consider when it comes to removal of water surfaces.
Artificially extending land out into the ocean is dangerous and damaging to coastal ecosystems. This ill-advised practice puts people and structures at risk, strains our coastal ecosystems, damages fish and fish habitat and threatens water quality.
Yet the practice of infilling could continue regularly along the Northwest Arm.
This federal jurisdiction over the seabed, limited municipal jurisdiction and the absence of provincial environmental assessment have left a dangerous loophole in governance.
As a result, it takes very little for a property owner to gain approval for an infilling permit, despite the tremendous damage and great risk associated with an infilling project.
At this time, there is no requirement for provincial assessment of damage or risk associated with water lot infilling, despite the potential environmental impacts.
Climate change factor
All levels of government have acknowledged that climate change is real and is the greatest long-term threat faced by Canadians.
Coastlines and coastal structures are put at risk by climate change impacts such as sea-level rise, storm surge, coastal flooding and increased frequency and intensity of weather events.
Even the Coastal Protection Act — an innovative legislative solution to protect the majestic coastlines of Nova Scotia from inappropriate development — will not address this governance gap because water lots sit between federal jurisdiction and private property rights.
Given the potential negative impacts of infilling on the marine environments, fish, fish habitats, recreation and safe navigation in the Northwest Arm, the Ecology Action Centre is asking the federal government to pause approval of all infill projects until a regional assessment can be conducted to consider the cumulative impacts of infilling.
Regional assessments are formal processes conducted cooperatively with municipal, provincial, federal and Indigenous jurisdictions. There is also public engagement.
The people of Halifax, of Nova Scotia and of Canada deserve to have all levels of government working cooperatively on this issue.
If this problem is not resolved, the Northwest Arm ecosystem and the public’s enjoyment of it will be radically altered over the coming years.
There will be less of the Northwest Arm for all to enjoy.
If you’d like to learn more about this issue, please check out https://protectthenorthwestarm.com/ and sign the petition for change.
Nancy Anningson is coastal adaptation senior coordinator for the Ecology Action Centre