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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.
Water, water everywhere.
Ancient Mariner poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge could have been referencing contemporary Nova Scotia, from Yarmouth to Truro and on to Sydney and most parts in between.
“The water is pretty until it’s in your living room,” said Andrew MacKinnon, director of Public Works for Truro.
The province boasts 8,000 kilometres of coastline, jumping to 13,000 kilometres when the land around harbours, coves, inlets and tidal estuaries are included. Sea level is expected to rise by as much as a metre by century’s end, creating higher storm surges in coastal areas and along tidal estuaries.
“The best thing that we can do to try to mitigate flooding is to basically try to do storm-water management projects to reverse the effect that urbanization has had on our wetlands over the past 100 years,” MacKinnon said.
The Town of Truro, Colchester County and Millbrook First Nation struck a joint flood advisory committee that meets three or four times a year. The committee is implementing recommendations of a $393,000 flood-risk study completed in 2014.
“Our biggest problem here, as well as other areas in the province, is that the Acadian dikes were built to protect farmland,” MacKinnon said. “With sea level rise and climate change affecting the freshwater side of things, with all of our development over the years, people have come to expect the dikes to protect urbanization and they were never meant for that.
“If those dikes were never built in the first place, people would never have built on the saltmarshes because they would flood every year. … Because the dikes were built, people have been infilling them and building on them and thinking there is nothing wrong. “
The primary flood mitigation plan is to reroute the dikes, moving them back to create more holding capacity on the marsh instead of water topping the dikes and gushing into urbanized areas.
“Buildings are still in jeopardy,” MacKinnon said. “We’ve identified most of these areas as far back as the 1970s and have created, in conjunction with the province and the federal departments, the one-in-20 and even one in 100-year flood zones that we put certain restrictions on over the years. You’re not allowed to build in the one-in-20 areas and if you build in the one in 100, it has to be above a certain level. Most of what gets flooded are things that were built before that timeframe.”
"Our biggest problem here, as well as other areas in the province, is that the Acadian dikes were built to protect farmland. With sea level rise and climate change affecting the freshwater side of things, with all of our development over the years, people have come to expect the dikes to protect urbanization and they were never meant for that."
-Andrew MacKinnon, director of Public Works for Truro
In Yarmouth, Mayor Pam Mood said sea level rise threatens privately and publicly owned infrastructure in the town of 6,500 where the Bay of Fundy meets the North Atlantic.
“We are encouraging dense development,” Mood said. “Live where you work, work where you live.”
The town has a two-kilometre-long waterfront.
“When I look out my window, it’s mostly wharf,” the mayor said. “That’s built infrastructure so we have to make sure that we maintain that.”
The mayor said the old Domtex building, a huge waterfront structure, was recently demolished.
“The question is what can be rebuilt there. It won’t be the same as it was 10 or 20 years ago. It’s up to us to write the rules to make sure that whatever is there, the elevation is going to have to change. We’re going to have to protect what comes next.”
Mood said the town will welcome a federally funded staffer to work on climate change. Yarmouth will work on seven solar panel projects and do traffic studies on its busiest roads.
“Changing traffic signals so that traffic moves more freely, it’s all part of the whole ecosystem.”
In Cape Breton Regional Municipality, it’s all about avoiding a repeat of Oct. 10, 2016, when up to 225 millimetres of rain fell in one day and flooded hundreds of homes and businesses and turned roads into rivers. The province eventually bought 17 homes left uninhabitable by flooding.
Flooding in the Wash Brook area of south-end Sydney was not related to sea-level rise, Malcolm Gillis of the municipality’s planning and development department said in an email.
“Tide levels and sea-level rise will affect the lower reaches of the Wash Brook watershed, regardless of precipitation, which provides additional challenges in the areas that are susceptible to tidal effects,” Gillis said.
Gillis said CBRM is adopting a climate change plan that will implement adaptation methods to keep “new developments further, and higher from the shore than current provisions.”
As the municipality awaits proposed coastal protection legislation from the province, Gillis said CBRM does not currently stipulate a specific setback from coastal areas, either horizontal or vertical, other than the minimum four-foot setback from any property boundary and other than the boundary a property shares with a public street or road.
“We are now involved in a review of CBRM’s planning strategy and will be introducing a combination of distance and height setbacks from the shores of any significant body of water in the CBRM,” Gillis said.
He said the planning strategy defines as significant bodies of water the Atlantic Ocean, the Bras d’Or Lake and the Mira River, but that could change.
“This is a complex issue,” Gillis said. “To quote the CBRM planning strategy, ‘there is very little data available to influence an informed policy directive on the subject. ‘”
The planning strategy concluded that an “arbitrary setback imposed without knowledge of the rate of erosion and the factors causing it would be too much of an imposition on development in some situations and too little to protect development in others,” Gillis said.
The municipality looks forward to the provisions the province is considering but it may move forward on its own, Gillis said.