Watching the Petitcodiac River flow – once again – Science Matters

By David Suzuki with Faisal Moola

New Brunswick’s Petitcodiac River once teemed with Atlantic salmon, smelt, and sturgeon. Flowing 129 kilometres from the village of Petitcodiac through Moncton and into Shepody Bay on the Bay of Fundy, the river was an important transportation route for the Mi’gmaq people, as well as Acadian and Pennsylvania "Dutch" settlers. It’s also famous for its "tidal bore". Twice a day, the tide rushes from the Bay of Fundy up the river, at speeds ranging from a few to 13 kilometres an hour and heights that once reached two metres.

But it’s been a long time since fish, people, and the tides have been able to travel freely along the whole length of the "river that bends like a bow" (from Pet-Kout- Koy-ek, the name given to the river by the Mi’gmaq). That’s because, in 1968, the federal and provincial governments built a rock-and-earth causeway across the river to connect Moncton with the town of Riverview. Fish could no longer migrate to its upper reaches and a once thriving commercial fishery effectively collapsed. In 2003, Earthwild International rated the Petitcodiac as Canada’s second-most endangered river.

Now that’s changing. In 2003, the province finally decided to act to save the river. On April 14 this year, the New Brunswick government permanently opened the gates on the causeway, allowing the river’s waters to flow freely once again. This action marks the culmination of one of the longest environmental battles in the country and represents one of the largest river restoration projects undertaken in Canada.

Efforts to restore this river demonstrate the importance of caring for our waterways and also show what can be accomplished when people are determined to work for positive change.

Tim Van Hinte, executive director of Petitcodiac Riverkeeper, hopes this project will spur others across the country and around the world to work to restore rivers in communities where fish populations have been declining because of unnecessary barriers built years ago.

It’s hard to imagine that people once thought blocking a river in such a way was a good idea. It’s another example of how we humans often act without enough knowledge to fully understand what the consequences of our actions will be. It also shows us that saving the environment can be a tough battle. It has taken years of persistent effort by well-intentioned people to get government to do the right thing, and the project has been met with stiff opposition from people who own property around the reservoir created by the causeway.

Our rivers are the lifeblood of our nation and of the Earth. They are like the veins and arteries in our bodies. They absorb vital nutrients that wash off the lands during rains and distribute them far and wide, nourishing a plethora of organisms like fish, animals, plants, and trees that thrive in, on, and around the water. Entire ecosystems depend on clean, free-flowing waters for their very existence. Rivers also provide humans with drinking water, opportunities for recreation, and beautiful scenery. When we harm or destroy a river, we are harming and destroying all life that depends on that river, including ourselves. We really need to treat our rivers with more respect.

We can be grateful that so many people refused to give up on the Petitcodiac and worked hard to see it flow free once again.

Let’s learn from their example and work together to help restore those rivers that have been damaged and protect those that are still flowing naturally. This is especially important now because our governments still treat waterways like disposable commodities at a time when the planet’s supply of fresh, clean water is rapidly diminishing. Astoundingly, our federal government allows mining companies to dump toxic wastes into some of Canada’ most pristine lakes and rivers, destroying them and the ecosystems that depend on them.

Climate change also threatens many of our rivers, so caring for them means addressing this important challenge. And we must keep pollutants out of natural water bodies and do all we can to conserve water, so that our rivers keep flowing long into the future. The Petitcodiac River restoration project sets a great example of what can be done for the health of our rivers.

Science Matters is published by The David Suzuki Foundation and has been re-syndicated with permission on network since 2000.

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