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SCHNEIDEREIT: There'll be much more daylight at end of tunnel for Sawmill River if city takes charge

Little by little, hopes are growing a naturalized Sawmill River will reappear in downtown Dartmouth. The big reason? Halifax city planners now say a plan to develop land beside Dartmouth Cove could lead to rerouting Alderney Drive.
In March, Jocelyne Rankin, then water co-ordinator at the Ecology Action Centre, stands in front of the Sawmill River where it exits an underground culvert (seen in the distance) and flows in a channel to Dartmouth Cove. The interim freshwater co-ordinator at EAC is now Larissa Holman. (TIM KROCHAK / Local Xpress)
Little by little, hopes are growing a naturalized Sawmill River will reappear in downtown Dartmouth.
The big reason? Halifax city planners now say a plan to develop land beside Dartmouth Cove could lead to rerouting Alderney Drive. That could free up precious space to at least partially resurrect the river, which now flows within a buried and aging — culvert.
More than 100 local residents applauded the news at a public information session held Thursday night at the MicMac Amateur Aquatic Club on the shores of Lake Banook.
“It’s huge,” Sam Austin said after the meeting. He’s a local resident, a blogger (whose day job is as an urban planner for the federal government) and supporter of daylighting the Sawmill who’s running for council in Dartmouth Centre.
For those unfamiliar with the drive to raise the Sawmill, a quick recap.
The waterway once ran from Sullivans Pond to Dartmouth Cove in Halifax Harbour. But the river was diverted through a stormwater culvert after it overflowed with run-off from hurricane Beth in the early 1970s, flooding the downtown. Now that culvert needs to be replaced.
That’s been seen as an opportunity to daylight bring the river back to the surface the Sawmill. Daylighting can offer important ecological, economic, engineering and social benefits. The movement has seen a growing number of municipalities around the world resurrect long-buried watercourses.
But a campaign to bring back the Sawmill might not have gone anywhere if it weren’t for one thing. 
The Department of Fisheries and Oceans told Halifax Water which is responsible for stormwater management that if the culvert was replaced, fish passage from the harbour to Sullivans Pond must be re-established at the same time.
Last summer, a report commissioned by Halifax Water recommended a combination of open channel and underground culvert with spaced surface gratings to allow in natural light and fish baffles as a replacement.
Critically, the portion of the Sawmill closest to Halifax Harbour would have remained underground. Now, that might have all changed.
The reason?
City planners have taken a closer look at a 2012 concept plan to redevelop the downtown area near Dartmouth Cove between Alderney and Maitland Street. As part of that, one possibility they’re now studying is extending Mill Lane to allow traffic to flow between Alderney and Portland Street near Maitland.
If that happened, some current streets including Alderney as it approaches the intersection at Portland and Prince Albert Road could be repurposed (including hosting a naturalized, daylighted Sawmill, since that’s where the current underground culvert runs).
Significantly, Halifax Water has slowed down its own plans for replacing the culvert to see what comes of these studies by city planners.
The Downtown Dartmouth Business Commission favours a naturalized river and park-like setting in that area.
As optimistic as that all sounds, it’s not a certainty. And the rest of the official vision for the Sawmill’s route remains partly a boxed channel, possibly behind high fences, and partly a new underground culvert with spaced gratings to let in natural light. Hardly a river.
Daylighting proponents picture ideally a naturalized Sawmill, with sloped banks, greenery and park-like amenities, flowing for as much of the distance between Sullivans Pond and the harbour as possible.
Much, much more could be done to make that dream a reality, but it won’t happen without a key, vocal champion that, thus far, has been missing. I refer to the city.
The news from city planners concerning the redevelopment near Dartmouth Cove is welcome. But that’s only part of the picture.
Despite a city policy to encourage daylighting, the official Halifax response to efforts to bring back the Sawmill in downtown Dartmouth has often been tepid, at best.
The former city of Halifax has so much. The Citadel, the Commons with its skating oval, the bustling, redeveloped waterfront boardwalk and much, much more. Downtown Dartmouth can never rival that. 
But a resurrected Sawmill could prove a special, unique place across the harbour.
Late in Thursday night’s meeting, someone suggested what was truly needed was a steering committee made up of city planners, Halifax Water, the downtown business commission and other interested groups to chart a way to turn the vision for more fully daylighting the Sawmill into a reality.
That would include exploring opportunities to acquire more land for the project, where needed.
The notion was enthusiastically applauded.
The city is the obvious and really, the only — choice to lead such a committee.
So far, daylighting proponents have made tremendous progress in getting the campaign to bring back the Sawmill to where it stands today.
Will the city now step forward to enthusiastically champion that cause?