March 6, 2002

Moncton Times and Transcript

Little data available on state of Petitcodiac
by Tammy Scott-Wallace

The Petitcodiac River may be one of the most exhaustively studied rivers in the country, yet its most basic information is undocumented.

Dr. Michael Chadwick, the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans regional director of science and conference organizer, admitted that it took the gathering of the worlds most brilliant scientific minds to come to the conclusion that much more needs to be known about the deteriorating river before techniques to study it can be determined.

The conference was spearheaded by DFO and Environment Canada, with support but no financial help from the Department of Environment and Local Government and the Department of Transportation. It was assembled to discuss successes in computerized modelling in other parts of the world to prepare a clear direction for the planned environmental impact assessment.

What scientists discovered, however, when they arrived in Moncton with their elaborate presentations on different ways to simulate the river in order to study it as part of the EIA, is that the information they had to share was premature.

“We don’t have enough basic information to even look at a model,” Chadwick told the Times & Transcript immediately following the conference of over 60 scientists, engineers and other interested parties. “We have the poorest set of samples many of them ( scientists) have ever known.

“We don’t know about the level of sediments or the salts in the river. We don’t know the basic building blocks. We have to know much more about the channels and the tides.”

Chadwick said those attending the conference agreed to continue sharing information and suggestions in terms of the river study once basic data is collected. As well, a Web site will be organized.

He said his department has to be aggressive and focus now in obtaining crucial information to ensure the EIA, of which computerized modelling is a big part, sticks to the 2004 target. He said it’s premature to speculate if this lack of knowledge will lead to delays or extra spending in the EIA process.

The scientist said his department will immediately begin collecting historical data from documents and residents, as well as aerial photographs. They will also gather water level data to see what the channel looks like, and they will collect field samples to determine basics like salt content, sediment, turbidity (cloudiness) and tidal cycles.

While DFO is responsible for events occurring in the ecosystem itself when it relates to fish passage, the provincial government owns and operates the causeway which has created the problem with the dying river.

There have been two environmental impact assessments over the past 10 years, so Daniel LeBlanc of the Petitcodiac Riverkeeper was surprised to learn during the conference that so little information about the river is known.

“I don’t think this conference was a waste of time because it emphasized the things we need to get moving on right away, but I was shocked to learn how little information government agencies have gathered on the river during past studies,” he said. “These people were invited here to give their advice and expertise, but realized very quickly that we’re not ready yet for what they have to offer.

“The DFO has done a great job studying in the past the biological information, in fact, their information on the demise of certain species was crucial, but in those processes, the physical questions on the river were never answered.”

LeBlanc explained the river studies of 1988-1991, and 1997-1999, were unsuccessful in gathering crucial information because scientists and engineers funded primarily by DFO were given limitations on what to study.

“We are data poor,” he said. “Those experiments failed to collect some of the data we desperately need today.

“Scientists who have absolutely no stake in this have said that if you’re trying to find a real solution to this problem, you’re shooting yourself in the foot if politicians put limits on the study, ” he added. “Any limits imposed during this EIA should be worked out with the scientists and not at the political level.

Dr. Bob Chant of Rutgers University in New Jersey was in the city to discuss tidal asymmetries, mixing processes and particle trapping in stratified estuaries, but soon discovered he could only speak very generally about his topics since data specific to the Petitcodiac River is unclear.

“We’re not walking out with a definite answer today,” he said. “What we do know is the causeway was installed, likely with imperfect information, but we have much better information today.

“Measures are being taken to deal with it, so who is at fault is really water under the bridge,” he said. “This meeting offered guidance needed to ensure this river can return to a dynamic equilibrium.

“Yes, fish could return. If the will is there to return it to its natural condition, it can be done but there’s a cost to do that which will include a lot of coastal engineering.

“It took 30 years to get here, and it could take that long to fix it, but a guarded approach has to be taken to get there.”