A man wearing a black shirt and jeans stands in front of a stone wall with his hand on a wooden board. The board has green tape at the top denoting 5'. It's a sunny day.
Coun. Shawn Cleary at the Williams lake dam. — Photo: Williams Lake Conservation Company

Halifax councillors are considering sending a direct message down the street to Province House: do your dam job.

Council’s Environment and Sustainability Standing Committee received two presentations and a staff report at its virtual meeting on Thursday about the Williams Lake dam.

The dam, originally constructed in the 1700s for industry — a mill and ice-making — and now intended to maintain water levels in the Spryfield-area lake for recreation, has been leaking for years and needs to be replaced.

In response to community concerns, Coun. Shawn Cleary asked for a staff report in late 2020 “that investigates the declining water levels in Williams Lake and makes recommendations on potential actions related to repairing and/or replacing the dam, as well as stopping the leakage around and under the dam.”

The report — written by Penelope Kuhn, real property policy coordinator; Richard Harvey, manager of parks policy and planning; and Nalini Naidoo, director of strategic parks planning and design — found the cause was in fact the leaky dam.

“Observations by staff in the summer, when water levels are low, found that water is flowing through and likely underneath the dam,” Kuhn, Harvey and Naidoo wrote.

The Williams Lake Conservation Company, a non-profit volunteer organization previously responsible for the dam, commissioned a study in 2006, and found it needed replacing at a cost of $275,000. According to a more recent update, that cost is now $750,000, with an extra $150,000 on top if fish passage is to be incorporated.

The Williams Lake Dam — Photo: Williams Lake Conservation Company

HRM doesn’t own the dam, and made damn sure to make that clear when it created a park nearby.

“The Municipality acquired Shaw Wilderness Park in 2019, and this park is on either side of the Dam; which is one of the reasons it has been suggested that the Municipality repair the Dam,” Kuhn, Harvey and Naidoo wrote. “At acquisition of the parkland, the Municipality asserted that it was not responsible for the Dam and would not be taking over ownership or responsibility through the acquisition.”

The provincial government considers the dam “a non-essential water control structure of unknown ownership,” one of several across the province whose status is currently under review.

“Based on HRM’s understanding of the provincial assessment it is expected that dam ownership may be assigned to a provincial body but for some dams the question of ownership may remain unsettled. The province has also indicated that it no longer supports the granting of permits or agreements for community group ownership or maintenance of dams,” Kuhn, Harvey and Naidoo wrote.

The report recommended the committee recommend council ask Mayor Mike Savage to write a letter to the provincial government “requesting that the Williams Lake Dam be assumed by a provincial body and repaired or replaced to address its impact on declining water levels in Williams Lake or that the Province revisit its position on granting permits or agreements for community group ownership or maintenance of dams.”

That motion passed unanimously, but there was some concern about the idea of a community group taking over ownership.

Margo Kerr of the William’s Lake Dam Association told the committee residents are frustrated, and the report downplayed the urgency of the problem.

“We really need the city to take action and be the leader,” Kerr said.

“It is not reasonable for the community groups to be responsible for critical infrastructure when it jeopardizes such vital recreational assets, the environment, and the surrounding residential properties. Government needs to undertake such initiatives.”

Murray Coolican, president of the Williams Lake Conservation Company, agreed with Kerr’s concerns around community groups taking responsibility.

“The regulatory process that the Department of Environment has for dams — repair, rebuild, whatever — was designed to work for an organization the size of Nova Scotia Power. It just doesn’t lend itself to community group ownership,” Coolican said.

Coolican also suggested HRM should spend some money “given the city’s interest in the Shaw Wilderness Park which is impacted by the dam.”

Cleary said he doesn’t think there’s any risk of the province handing responsibility back to community groups.

“Hopefully this is one they will take over, and hopefully one that they will fix,” Cleary said. “I would be happy once that’s determined to have HRM participate in that financially because we have skin in the game an dI think many of my colleagues would agree with that.”

The motion goes next to council before any letter will be written.

Zane Woodford

Zane Woodford is the Halifax Examiner’s municipal reporter. He covers Halifax City Hall and contributes to our ongoing PRICED OUT housing series. Twitter @zwoodford

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  1. There are a number of small scale dams within HRM that were originally built for commercial purposes (mostly power generation) but no longer are. Often, in this situation, the owner of the dam is directed by the regulatory authorities to rip out the dams so as to restore fish passage. However, the lakes or reservoirs created by these dams may now serve public purposes, such as swimming and boating or creating an attractive environment for housing along the shorelines.
    The problem created is then who will operate and maintain the dams once they no longer serve a commercial purpose as there is no incentive for the original license holder to do so.
    The obvious answer is for a public entity to assume responsibility as should happen at Williams Lake. Similarly, there is a dam at the outlet to Big Indian Lake that created a backup water supply for Halifax Water and three dams within the Birch Cove Lakes Watershed (at the outlets to Quarry Lake, Kearney Lake and Papermill Lake) that were used to power turbines at Mill Cove. Power generation is long gone but now these lakes serve two formal HRM swimming locations, a boat club and informal swimming and boating throughout. The dams also function as part of the stormwater management system for a fast growing urban area, although Halifax Water would never concede that.
    HRM and the Province need to negotiate a longer term solution to pay for the maintenance of these dams so as to avoid the current situation at Williams Lake. This would not be a particularly expensive endeavor, particularly if funded through annual contributions to a reserve account.