N.S. government issues emergency order to shut aboiteau gates at Windsor causeway

The gates beneath the Highway 101 causeway in Windsor have been ordered shut by an emergency order from the provincial government. (Paul Palmeter/CBC - image credit)
The gates beneath the Highway 101 causeway in Windsor have been ordered shut by an emergency order from the provincial government. (Paul Palmeter/CBC - image credit)

The mayor of West Hants Regional Municipality says the Nova Scotia government's emergency order closing the aboiteau at the Windsor causeway to refill a man-made lake came with no notice and has caused people in the community to question their safety.

Mayor Abraham Zebian said he learned of the news from social media.

"It's not fair to us, it's not fair to our residents," he said in an interview on Friday.

The province issued a news release just before 10 p.m. on Thursday to say John Lohr, the minister responsible for the Emergency Management Office, was declaring a state of emergency for the area due to safety concerns posed by dry conditions and wildfires raging in the province.

The gates of the aboiteau, which allow tidal waters to flow in and out of the Avon River, will remain closed so the river can refill Lake Pisiquid, a precaution meant to maximize water supplies and keep residents in the Windsor area safe, according to the release.

But Zebian said officials in the municipality have worked to ensure the community remains safe as wildfires rage out of control in Shelburne County, Yarmouth County and Halifax Regional Municipality.

Paul Withers
Paul Withers

Zebian said council had received no concerns from local fire officials and that municipal emergency planning efforts have included regular communication with the province.

"We thought we were doing everything right, but we've just had this curveball last night. We've started to question, are we at risk all of a sudden?" he said.

"When we're not consulted, we're not brought into any information whatsoever, and if there is a concern from the provincial side of things and they know something that we do not know, it would be very helpful if they reached out and they share that with us so we are updated, rather than finding out on social media."

In an interview Friday, Lohr said his department is in a "very fast-moving situation." He said he'd be reaching out to Zebian to apologize for not giving council a heads-up about the decision.

"Certainly, that was not the intent," he said.

Paul Palmeter/CBC
Paul Palmeter/CBC

Lohr said his department received a request Thursday afternoon from the chief responsible for the Windsor Fire Department and South West Hants Fire and he made the decision to issue the order around 6 p.m.

The request was related to supplying a source of water for dry hydrants, which are not hooked up to a municipal supply, and would be necessary if there were a significant fire, he said.

Given what's happening elsewhere in the province right now, Lohr said he felt compelled to act to ensure firefighters have every resource at their disposal in the event of an emergency.

Military support and firefighters from the United States and Costa Rica are en route to Nova Scotia or have arrived to help fight the fires.

"We're scouring the world — literally — for more firefighting resources," said Lohr.

The minister said the order to keep the aboiteau gates closed and Lake Pisiquid refilled would remain in place until he's confident the crisis is over and local and provincial firefighting resources are "adequate to the circumstances."

The issue of the lake, which has almost entirely drained following a federal order in 2021 requiring the gates to open fully each day for 10 minutes during incoming and outgoing tides to allow for fish passage, has been politically contentious.

Robert Short/CBC
Robert Short/CBC

Lohr's order on Thursday overrides the federal order. A spokesperson for Fisheries and Oceans Canada said they were informed of the province's decision on Friday.

"At this time, our thoughts are with the people affected by the wildfires in Nova Scotia and with the first responders working hard to keep them safe, as well as those who live and work in the areas affected," Christine Lyons said in an email.

The provincial government is attempting to get approval from Fisheries and Oceans Canada for a replacement for the aboiteau to allow construction of a new highway to cross the Avon River. Delays in that approval have meant delays in construction and led to the draining of the lake.

Last month, Premier Tim Houston and Melissa Sheehy-Richard, the MLA for West Hants, filmed a video standing on the dry lake bed criticizing the federal government for the delayed approvals. The Tory caucus issued a news release Thursday night from Sheehy-Richard highlighting Lohr's decision.

"I am glad our government is giving local firefighters the best possible chance to keep us safe at this dangerous time."

Politics not a factor in minister's decision

Lohr said the decision to issue the order is entirely his and has nothing to do with the political back and forth between his government and Ottawa.

"I didn't consult with the local MLA," he said.

Zebian said he wants people to know that they are safe and the municipality has been proactive to make sure they are prepared in the event of an emergency. He takes offence to how things have played out with the province and said it's creating unnecessary concern among some residents.

"My community has been riled up. People are nervous, people are afraid, people are bringing up past fires and what if we have no water. It's irresponsible."