HANTSPORT, N.S. — Chants of “Save the Aboiteau, Stop the Flow’ soon turned into cheers after residents of Hantsport and the surrounding areas learned the province is finally stepping in to fix the issue at the Halfway River.
Upwards of 500 people marched along Highway 1, leading into Hantsport, to raise awareness of the issue Jan. 4.
“This is so fundamentally important to our community. We have to get the aboiteau fixed, replaced, for everyone and stop this free flow of destruction. It’s destroying our community,” said Hantsport Coun. Robbie Zwicker, who was joined by several fellow councillors at the planned protest.
“I hope that the government will step in and look at a common sense approach. It’s not an expensive or complex fix. Get a replacement aboiteau in there and let the land recover,” said Zwicker.
The Hantsport aboiteau, which failed in the fall of 2017, was a dyke sluice gate that restricted tidal flow at the mouth of the Halfway River. Since its failure, there has been a twice daily influx of saltwater, which has caused severe flooding of once fertile fields, killed off a variety of trees and vegetation, and has been eroding the riverbanks.
At the conclusion of the hour-long protest, citizens were invited to the Hantsport Baptist Church for refreshments and to hear from Hants West MLA Chuck Porter.
Porter thanked the community for its passion for preserving the area and said while he knows they’ve been frustrated waiting for action, the province is stepping in to help.
“We will be coming in and plugging that hole up,” he said, to a round of applause and cheers.
While the plans are still being worked out, he said a temporary fix will be made in the immediate future.
“We’re going to go in and we’re going to, this winter, put in what we will call a temporary measure to block that up and then we will complete our planning on what will be a more robust, long-term aboiteau and solution that will be there,” said Porter.
He noted that determining and designing the permanent solution will involve community consultation.
Forcing the government’s hand
Tom Thompson, who aired his concerns about the Riverbank Cemetery being at risk due to the eroding coastline late last year, says he is tentatively optimistic that the government will make good on their word and fix the aboiteau.
He’s one of several citizens who has been lobbying for the government to step in and repair the site.
“I’m thinking it’s about time that they did something. I don’t understand why they can do it now and why they couldn’t have done it back in September,” said Thompson following Porter’s announcement.
“If they follow through, like he says, and they get right at it and either rebuild the old aboiteau or put something in there that they can block that off and keep the tidal water out, that will be a big, big help,” he said, adding the sooner a fix can be put in place the better.
“I think that their hands were forced and they knew that they weren’t going to look very good if they didn’t do something. This is very, very good,” Thompson added.
The planned protest drew media from around the province — something protesters said would help add pressure on officials to get the situation addressed.
“We had such an excellent turnout and this is sort of the icing on the cake — if they make it happen,” said Thompson.
“The one thing is they have said it all in front of the media so we will hold their feet to the fire.”
Other areas of concern
For Brett King, an avid baseball player, the potential loss of ballfields on HMCC property was enough to make him stand outside over the lunch chanting for positive change.
“Saving the baseball fields is important to me because there's been a bunch of generations playing on these baseball fields, and baseball has a big history in Hantsport. If we lose those two fields, then minor baseball could be in a lot of trouble in Hantsport,” he said, holding a sign that read ‘Save our two baseball fields.’
He said if the bank near HMCC’s property line erodes a few more feet, they could be in big trouble.
But saving baseball wasn’t his only concern. He said the failed aboiteau has affected a variety of groups.
“I really hope that the government takes this seriously and gets this fixed. It’s endangering a lot more than just the baseball fields. It’s endangering wildlife habitat, the cemetery and it’s messing up... the environment.”
Another concern brought up by the group he was with was the loss of wildlife habitat. Since the tidal waters consistently flood the former fields and marsh, several animals have been displaced. For example, the red-wing blackbird, which once flitted back and forth near the entrance to the community, has not been seen in months. Deer travel routes have been disrupted, and turtles that once thrived by the highway are no longer being spotted.
Evan Merks and Courtney Shay live on Schurman Road, adjacent to the failed aboiteau and Halfway River, and must import water due to saltwater contamination of their well.
The pair said they hope the government will address their situation, as well as those who have lost property value or suffered losses due to the aboiteau failure.
“As great as it is that they’re going to reinstate it (the aboiteau), what’s that mean for our property? Our well is still contaminated. They’re saying it’s seven to eight years before the land is back to being arable for plant life. So as far as water, I’m doubtful we will ever have fresh water again,” said Merks.
Shay said they’ve been dealing with a very trying situation since last year when the well went.
“It’s past frustrating at this point. It’s very aggravating and it’s almost personal now,” said Shay. “They get to go home; they get to shower and wash their clothes. They have no worries about water and we don’t have fresh running water.”
During the brief announcement following the protest, Porter was asked what plans are in place to help families affected by the failed aboiteau. He said he has relayed their concerns.
“I have expressed their concerns obviously. I’m trying to address those too. We’re working on that and will continue to do so,” he said, before adding that there is still an active court case involving the province and the owner of Windsor and Hantsport Railway Ltd.