Sparking the imagination

December 4, 2013

The Sackville Rivers Association (SRA) has spent the past 25 years repairing the damage from centuries of human activity in the Sackville Rivers watershed.

“A lot of people feel we’re wasting our time to restore and try to protect an urban river and watershed,” says SRA President Walter N. Regan, but he doesn’t buy that notion. The watershed is part of the Regional Municipality (HRM) with the largest population in Atlantic Canada, approaching 400,000 people and growing.

The Sackville River stretches from Mount Uniake at its most northern point in Nova Scotia, winding 40 kilometres southward through a series of lakes and ponds until it empties into Bedford Basin and the Halifax Harbour. The river is part of numerous popular bedroom communities.

“So when we’re working on a restoration or cleanup project, we’re often almost in people’s back yards. We’re quite visible and attract attention,” says Regan. “People wander up out of curiosity to ask what we’re doing. It’s a point of contact, an opportunity we can use to talk about the river and watershed. We’re like the spark for people’s imaginations. They’re often surprised to learn that the river they thought was ‘dirty’ is actually now clean and supports more than 13 fish species, including the magnificent wild Atlantic Salmon.”

Regan says these casual learning encounters often translate to a new awareness and respect, a new valuing of the river and watershed. He believes this appreciation, born of knowledge, is crucial to the future coexistence of communities and the rivers.

The SRA got its start in June, 1988, when a handful of residents turned out for an afternoon cleanup of the local river. When they decided to create an organization for river restoration and protection, they needed to establish a standard for their work—a big, overriding goal. They chose to champion to the wild Atlantic salmon because the healthy presence of this species is considered to indicate the best water and habitat. “It’s a biological indicator of water quality, similar to a canary used to monitor air quality in coal mines years ago,” explains Regan.

“We believe the Southern Uplands rivers (rivers discharging into the Atlantic ocean from Nova Scotia’s southern, Atlantic coast) supported over 3,000 salmon at one time in history. Last year, our river counter registered only 15,” says Regan. “The Atlantic Salmon fishery in this region has been closed since 1998. We (the SRA) can’t do anything about acid rain or the black hole in the ocean, but we can do something about habitat,” he adds.

Instead of wanting to keep people away once a river or brook has been rehabilitated, the SRA encourages respectful recreational use of the watershed. The group is working on an ambitious public access project, the Conservation Corridor, a series of trails along the 40-km Sackville River.

The Corridor will also include a network of side trails, connecting tributaries with the main river, and one of those tributaries is Peverills Brook. The brook is considered a high priority restoration area because it is one of the largest tributaries to the Sackville River and has good water chemistry that can provide important habitat to Atlantic salmon and other fish species. This watercourse endured years of gravel mining and the impact of two dams and a mill operation. It is believed the brook was even straightened in the past to accommodate logging activity.

In 2012, with the help of a grant from the Atlantic Salmon Conservation Foundation (ASCF), the SRA tackled restoration of Peverills Brook. By summer’s end, they had installed 12 new structures and enhanced two existing natural structures to improve fish habitat and water quality. They also maintained five other digger logs already installed in a past project.

“We’re a small organization,” says Regan. “The work we’re doing is only possible through the efforts and kindness of the ASCF and many others.”

Regan recalls that at one point after the installation of a digger log, some of the university students who had worked on the project came back to the site and were standing in the brook. “They jumped and got excited when something hit their feet. A whole school of Gaspereau was coming down the river, and they couldn’t believe there were so many fish just bouncing off their feet. That’s when they realized that the digger logs were actually working. It was one of those exciting, learning moments.”

With a quarter-century of good work under their belts, the 200-plus volunteer members of the Sackville River Association will continue to restore and protect the precious watershed and will relish those times when they can spark the imagination and commitment of others.