Once upon a time, a river flowed through downtown Dartmouth.
It meandered down from upstream lakes — Banook, Micmac and others — before emptying into Halifax Harbour.
Before Dartmouth even existed, a sawmill rose on the banks. Hence its name, the Sawmill River.
The watercourse — a traditional Mi’kmaq canoe route — played a key role in Dartmouth’s development. It became part of the Shubenacadie Canal system and later hosted Starr Manufacturing’s iconic skate makers.
Then the river disappeared.
No whodunit here. When downtown Dartmouth flooded in the wake of hurricane Beth in the early ’70s, the river was seen as one of the culprits. The verdict, based on contemporary wisdom: Lock the Sawmill up, within an underground pipe, so its storm waters could never endanger the city again.
And so, the Sawmill was buried. The river still flows, but today it’s through an aging underground culvert that begins at Sullivan’s Pond and ends near Dartmouth Cove in Halifax Harbour.
The daylighting revolution
A lot has changed in the decades since the Sawmill was forced underground.
Wiser folks in a growing number of cities around the world have realized that returning long-buried watercourses to daylight can have important engineering, ecological, economic and social benefits.
So why not the Sawmill?
That question’s been floating about for at least 15 years.
In 2002, the city approved a plan that would have incorporated a partially daylighted Sawmill River as part of a greenway project near Sullivan’s Pond. The initial plan included a playground, walking trail, daylighted river and excavated historical works dating from the time the canal operated in central Dartmouth.
Then, unfortunately, in 2004 the municipality sold a chunk of land at the site to developers who built the Lock 4 @ Starr condos.
“That ruined everything. It was a colossal planning disaster,” says Sam Austin, a local resident, blogger (whose day job is as an urban planner for federal government) and supporter of daylighting the Sawmill.
The large footprint of the condo building (on Ochterloney Street at Maple Street), plus the discovery of contaminated soil at the old Starr site thought better left undisturbed, left no room for a daylighted river through the greenway, says Austin.
A trickle of hope
But over the last few years, hopes the Sawmill could rise again have rekindled.
The catalyst was news the underground culvert carrying the Sawmill is in mostly poor shape and needs to be replaced.
Enter the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. DFO told Halifax Water, which owns and is responsible for the culvert, that whatever was planned, it had to include re-establishing fish passage between Halifax Harbour and Sullivan’s Pond.
DFO wants to see gaspereau, sea-run trout and other fish species eventually be able to once again access the chain of lakes upstream from Sullivan’s Pond. The first step is getting them that far.
Jocelyne Rankin, water co-ordinator of Halifax’s Ecology Action Centre, says returning fish to the lakes would help re-balance the ecosystem, for example reducing an overgrowth of aquatic plants now a problem in Lake Banook and attracting more birds and even aquatic mammals.
“With fish returning to that pond and beyond, I think we could expect to see a lot more biodiversity.”
Most fish prefer to swim in open waters that have spots to rest. They dislike the dark conditions and unrelenting flows found in many underground culverts.
For Rankin, the answer is obvious: Re-establish the Sawmill.
Besides fulfilling DFO’s requirements, an above-ground channel would be easier for Halifax Water to maintain and repair, says Rankin.
Last summer, a report commissioned by Halifax Water — done by CBCL Limited — to recommend a preliminary design for the culvert’s replacement favoured a combination of open channel and underground culvert with fish baffles and spaced surface gratings to let in natural light. The estimated cost was just under $14 million.
Halifax Water expect to complete a detailed design this year, according to spokesman James Campbell. DFO officials say they await that document.
Work is likely to start in 2017 on the first phase — a new underground storm water pipe, with fish baffles and overhead light sources, from Dartmouth Cove to the intersection where Alderney, Prince Albert and Portland meet.
The second phase, from Alderney to Sullivan’s Pond, has no firm date for construction yet.
More germane to the goal of daylighting, however, is that — though some open channel now looks almost certain along that upper section — many questions remain about how much flowing water people will be able to see.
One unknown is related to the condo. Rankin says people interested in daylighting hope to work with the building’s owners on possibly having a naturalized open channel, something visually appealing, flowing past.
The other involves the Alderney-Portland-Prince Albert intersection, where traffic improvements are planned by the city. Rankin says daylighting proponents are proposing a small, additional investment by the municipality — no more than $1 million — that could extend a daylighted Sawmill past Irishtown Road and closer to the intersection.
Confluence of events
Austin calls the situation a “once-in-a-generation opportunity” because of the convergence of the storm water line needing replacement, the intersection needing work and the ongoing development of the greenway.
“We need leadership from the city, leadership from council and leadership from the planning department,” says Austin.
Halifax Water is a utility, mandated by the URB, he says.
“It’s only the municipality that has that broader community interest at heart, or should, that can look at this and say, ‘Let’s just not daylight this stream, let’s not just replace this pipe; let’s actually build something beautiful here, let’s make a beautiful public space in the middle of downtown Dartmouth, that would be an asset to the community.’”
A year ago, more than 400 local residents showed up at a public meeting in Dartmouth to voice their backing for such a vision.
Some of the Sawmill now seems sure to be daylighted. But how much of it? What — industrial channel or enticing urban waterway — will it look like?
All that’s very much still up in the air.
Paul Schneidereit is a columnist for Local Xpress.
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