They wanted a lake. They got a flood.

In 2021, the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans ordered that the gates in the aboiteau on the Avon River beneath the Highway 101 causeway be opened, allowing the free passage of fish on the river.

That order drained the artificial Lake Pisiquid next to downtown Windsor, returning that stretch of river to its historic tidal path. The order also angered some people in Windsor who used the lake for paddling, the annual “pumpkin regatta,” and for the classic lakefront view it provided, instead of the more natural beauty of the mud flats. It also angered property developers who felt a view of the lake was a selling point for their new subdivisions.

So on June 1 of this year, as wildfires raged across southwestern Nova Scotia and in Halifax Regional Municipality, John Lohr used the powers granted to him by the state of emergency called during the fires to order the aboiteau be closed.

Lohr said fire officials said Lake Pisiquid was needed as a source of water to fight potential fires in the Windsor area. This was a lie. As reported here, no fire official told Lohr any such thing.

But Lake Pisiquid returned to its artificial glory. Even as late June rainfalls turned to a nearly perpetual July rain, Lohr continued to lie, saying there was still a fire threat.

On Friday, the near-daily rains took a dramatic turn toward the extreme. From the early hours of the morning, weather forecasters were warning of torrential rainfalls arriving in Nova Scotia Friday afternoon, evening, and overnight.

Before the DFO ordered the aboiteau opened in 2021, the aboiteau was opened before forecast rain in order to drain the lake, which provided protection from flooding to the adjacent business district.

But all day Friday and into Saturday morning, no one seemed concerned that Lake Pisiquid might flood. The time to open the aboiteau gates would have been as the outgoing tide could have emptied the lake completely, so starting about about 4pm. Here’s the tide schedule for Friday and Saturday:

High tide — 4:15pm
Low tide — 10:30pm

High tide — 04:30am
Low tide — 11:00am
High tide — 5:00pm

Local resident Billy Bradley took a photo of the still-closed aboiteau and posted it on the West Hants Community Facebook page, noting “I guess there is no fear of flooding. The gates still closed at causeway, 10:32pm.”

A river runs through a sluice.
This photo of the aboiteau was taken at 9:45am Saturday. Three people with deep knowledge of the aboiteau — Billy Bradley, Darren Porter, and Niki-Marie Lloyd — each say the photo shows that the aboiteau’s two gates are only partially opened. Credit: Billy Bradley

Peter Rand, who is the Department of Agriculture employee who opens and closes the gates, told the Examiner that he fully opened the two gates at 5:30am Saturday. Asked why the gates weren’t fully opened during low tide Friday given the forecast for heavy rain, he paused and chose his words carefully, saying “it’s beyond my capability to answer that right now.”

But Bradley took another photo of the aboiteau at 9:45am Saturday, and he and two others with deep knowledge of the aboiteau — Darren Porter and Nikki-Marie Lloyd — say the photo shows that the gates are only partially open.

And by this afternoon, the water in the artificial Lake Pisiquid backed into the commercial district of Windsor. An emergency alert issued at 2:58pm reads in part:

Avon River Hydro System is experiencing high water levels and excess water downstream impacts low-lying areas such as Froth Hole, Mill Section, and Lake Pisiquid. Search and Rescue has gone door to door on Water St, Windsor. Water continues to rise. Roads may be impacted or washed out; exercise caution.

So at a hastily called press conference at 4pm, I asked Premier Tim Houston why it took so long to open the abioteau gates, when they were opened exactly, and who ordered them opened.

Houston didn’t answer the question, responding instead with meaningless gobbledygook. Here’s our exchange:

Bousquet: I had a question for John Lohr but I guess the minister responsible for Emergency Services isn’t available in a biblical emergency. So I’ll ask the premier instead. We have reports and photos of the aboiteau on the Avon River being closed until 5:30 this morning and now as a result, the so-called Lake Pisiquid has backed up into the commercial district. My question is, Why weren’t the gates ordered opened earlier when we knew this historic rainfall was on the way, and who finally made the order to open the gates?

Houston: Thanks for the question. I can tell you that Minister Lohr, he’s out on the road surveying damage, talking with Nova Scotians He was desperate to be here to answer your question, but I insisted he be out there with Nova Scotians at this time. So that’s where he is. But the situation at the lake, I mean, obviously, we’re watching that closely. There’s some concern over flooding for sure as we approach high tide. High tide, I believe, is is 4:54. So working with the local officials there and the provincial officials, they’ve been monitoring that situation very closely.

Bousquet: That didn’t really answer the question about when the gates were ordered open, but following on, do you still think that the Emergency Act should be in place for risk of wildfires? 

Houston: We’ll continue to monitor that situation. Obviously, these things are in flux. I mean, significant rainfall over 24 hours. You know, you have forecast for rain and then you have actual rain. So we’ll continue to monitor that. But again, what I would say, the decisions that we have been taking, I would certainly stand by that. The best time to prepare to fight a fire is before the fire comes, you know. So it is still a situation that we’ll continue to monitor. But the filling of the lake, that decision was made, you know, when we were dealing with another crisis and disaster in this province, Of course, there is a history in the town of Windsor of fires and having to rely on that lake to fight fires. So the decision to have that ready in the case of a need for fires is absolutely the right decision. We’ll always put the public safety first. Now we’ve gone from fires to floods. So as we move from fires to floods, we’ll continue to assess. 

With files from Jennifer Henderson and Joan Baxter

Tim Bousquet is the editor and publisher of the Halifax Examiner. Twitter @Tim_Bousquet Mastodon

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  1. All horrible and completely preventable. But property developers want the artificial lake and so it will stay. They’re the only type of citizen the entirely captured political class listens to anymore.

  2. The worst thing to happen to Politics in this country has been media relations and professional communications. Even Premier’s and Prime Minister’s won’t answer simple questions when asked without it going through multiple layers of a comms department or spokesperson for an official “media release”. And even then it rarely answers the question.

    Too much secrecy and hiding behind either privacy or privilege arguments in Canadian government operations. Nothing will change without radical reforms

  3. If there is one thing that the last weather event of July 20-21, 2023 has shown us it is that there is a direct relationship between the dam on the St Croix River and Lake Pisiquid. In any watershed, each piece of the natural drainage system, whether it be an intermittent freshwater stream, a tidal creek, or a major river, are all connected.

    Another thing that seems certain – these severe, sudden weather events, that are perhaps climate change driven, will continue.

    A solution has now been found for the recreational activities at Martock and the canoe club. Could the agriculture activities in the Falmouth area be assisted in an acceptable fashion with dykes and new freshwater well sources? Defending Lake Pisiquid for aesthetic reasons seems impractical and costly.

    Another serious issue that those of us who live north of the causeway have experienced for 53 years is the sediment build-up in the Avon River’s bottom. This build-up has migrated and is causing meandering stream bottom channels that can be seen at low tide at bridge crossings over the tributaries off of the Avon – the St Croix, the Kennetcook, the Cogmagun, the Meander rivers, and other small tidal creeks. Much of the WHR Municipality near the Avon River system is situated in low lying land which is ripe for extreme storm related events such as wind, rain and storm surge events.

    Flood runoff from the land will meet the high tide levels and scour areas where there are roads, culverts and bridge abutments, not to mention the damage that could be done to people’s properties, and perhaps in some cases, lives.

    A tidal river running through the town of Windsor, as it once did naturally, would revitalize this growing area not only for its citizens, but for future tourism. It would also allow Windsor to reconnect completely with its uniquely storied past of industry, trade, shipbuilding and its prominent citizenry.

    The aesthetic desire of an artificial lake in front of the town does nothing to alleviate flood runoff from the watershed in a heavy rain event as we have witnessed in the last few days.

    Climate change events are newsmaker events. If we are going to defend Lake Pisiquid, I fear that we may have an Achilles Heel if we also intend to acknowledge that we take climate change seriously.

  4. I am beyond angered at the whole Windsor thing. This Minister should not only be removed but charged with criminal negligence and the Premier should take the side of the people and make that happen rather than try and defend the indefensible. A wise friend suggested the response to Houston’s intelligence insulting line “the best time to prepare to fight a fire is before the fire comes” should have been shoved back down his throat with “you should say the same thing for floods”. Outrageous.

  5. Wow, completely meaningless gibberish in response to your clear and direct question. I would like to say I’m surprised, but it’s just par for the course.