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High tides threaten low-lying Isthmus of Chignecto

Rising waters from the Bay of Fundy rush up against the CN rail line along the Isthmus of Chignecto route from Nova Scotia to New Brunswick. - Mike Johnson photo
Rising waters from the Bay of Fundy rush up against the CN rail line along the Isthmus of Chignecto route from Nova Scotia to New Brunswick. - Mike Johnson

Narrow stretch of land that connects province with New Brunswick named by UN as one of two most vulnerable areas to climate change on continent

Note: Sea levels are rising at a pace unparalleled in modern times and storms are becoming more intense as a result of global warming. This story is part of a weeklong series examining our rising oceans, the impact on our region and what government, scientists and others are doing to track change and mitigate damage.

Click here to read the series.

Roger Bacon can reflect on a lifetime of dealing with surging sea water.

The 92-year-old former premier of Nova Scotia remembers as a boy helping his father shore up the dikes near Amherst with a horse and drag sled.

“Wherever we saw a little water, we topped that dike out,” Bacon said. “Other farmers were doing the same thing.”

The dike topping was essential to protect farmland from the tidal water swirling in from the Bay of Fundy. Those world-renown high tides and storm surges now threaten the lifeline that connects Nova Scotia to New Brunswick and the rest of the country and North America.

That land connection is the Isthmus of Chignecto, a narrow strip of land that includes 20 kilometres of Trans-Canada Highway and CN rail, along with 35 kilometres of electric lines and dikes. A spokesman for the Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal Department said 14,600 vehicles, including 2,400 transport trucks, travel the corridor between Nova Scotia and New Brunswick daily. The truck and rail traffic transports $50 million in cargo every day, an annual total of $20 billion in trade.

“The transportation link carries almost all of the containers that are landed or shipped from Halifax,” said Bill Casey, member of Parliament for Cumberland-Colchester. “If that were to fail, the Port of Halifax would shut down until it’s replaced. That’s the biggest threat.

“If it failed, the highway would close as well. It’s a very essential transportation link. We’ve got the gas pipeline, we’ve got the highway and the railway. Right now, the only thing that’s holding back the ocean is the railbed.”

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The maps above show normal high tide at seven metres and a high tide of seven metres, plus the one-metre sea level rise that scientists forecast will be the norm by 2100. - Tim Webster / NSCC


Casey said he was told by an emergency measures official in 2015 that the Fundy sea water had surged to within a centimetre from the top of the railbed. He said the United Nations Panel on Global Warming identified the Fundy area as one of the two most vulnerable areas to climate change in North America, the other being New Orleans.

“It would wash out so fast,” Casey said if water tops the railbed. “An endless amount of water would flush through there.”

In danger of being rendered to virtual island status, Nova Scotia teamed with New Brunswick to submit a proposal to Ottawa requesting funding for an engineering study to find out what can be done to mitigate the isthmus predicament. Each province contributed $175,000, which the federal government matched, to commission a $700,000 study to determine the best way forward. 

Former premier Roger Bacon wants to see the dikes in the Amherst area built higher. - Francis Campbell
Former premier Roger Bacon wants to see the dikes in the Amherst area built higher. - Francis Campbell

Bacon said it’s not complicated.

“Those dikes got to be done,” said Bacon, still feisty as he covered issues past and present in the living room of his home on the original Bacon farm in Upper Nappan.

“I think it is the stupidest thing I ever heard that they are going to spend ($700,000) to get a study on how to stop the water from going over the dikes. The answer to the question is build the damn dikes higher, that’s the only way you are going to stop the water.

“This marsh land is so important, it grows hay crops, clover and alfalfa year after year after year. We’ve got to protect it and you’ve got to protect your railway, your highway, your connection to the other provinces.”

The New Democrats agree with the former Progressive Conservative premier. The party says that the provincial government should spend at least $50 million over the next five years to raise and reinforce dikes originally built by the Acadians in the 1700s in the low-lying area along the Tantramar marsh.

Lenore Zann, the party’s agricultural and environment critic, introduced a private member’s bill to that effect in the spring session but no action has been taken on it yet.

“There is a time for studies and there is a time for action,” Zann said. “Right now, with climate change and global warming heating up our waters and our air and having the hottest summer with the most consecutive hot days on record in Atlantic Canada, I’d say they’d better get a move on and do something before Nova Scotia becomes an island.”

The province announced in April 2017 that it had completed a $5.2-million project to replace the LaPlanche aboiteau that runs along the isthmus in Amherst. The project, according to the provincial Liberals, will protect about $40 million worth of provincial and municipal infrastructure, drain a 133-square-kilometre watershed and secure 1,000 hectares of agricultural marshland from Fundy flooding.

“This marsh land is so important, it grows hay crops, clover and alfalfa year after year after year. We’ve got to protect it and you’ve got to protect your railway, your highway, your connection to the other provinces.” 

-Roger Bacon, former N.S. premier and farmer

Still, the infrastructure, including road and rail, remains in jeopardy by almost all accounts.

“The rail line is now holding back the ocean and it was never designed to do that,” Casey said.

Zann said the isthmus upgrade has been bounced around long enough.

“I am pretty tired of everybody just tossing the football back and forth, whether it’s provincial, it’s federal or who is going to do what, just get it done.”

The political football has been punted to the $700,000 feasibility study. The study, funded federally through the National Trade Corridors Fund, will provide a detailed engineering assessment of existing infrastructure, consult with stakeholders and recommend options to protect the isthmus.

“That (railbed) could be reinforced or there could be a dike system built in front of the rail system or another one is to move everything inland, which I don’t think is going to happen, but ...,” Casey said.

“That’s giving up an awful lot of land and just putting the disaster off until later. There’s only a very narrow stretch that is projected to stay high and dry as sea levels rise. It’s a very low isthmus. I have seen proposals and plans to move it in. That’s what the $700,000 study will determine.”

Casey said when the study is completed, whatever is recommended is going to cost a lot of money.

“I think all levels of government will have to look at this and decide how to divide it up and what has to be done.”

“The rail line is now holding back the ocean and it was never designed to do that.”

 -MP Bill Casey

Federal funding to protect the highway, rail and communications infrastructure could come from the corridors fund, which has been allocated a total of $2 billion over 11 years, or the $2-billion, 10-year Disaster Mitigation and Adaptation Fund, designed to support investments to mitigate climate risks by building or reinforcing constructed or natural infrastructure.

“Something has to be done,” said Casey, who first brought the issue up in the House of Commons in 2009. “The whole economy of our province and much of Newfoundland depends on this isthmus.

“I think we are past due.” 

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