Inviting contractors to pave sand dunes in Canada’s Ocean Playground

My friend and sometime relative Peter Barss, a resident of West Dublin, Lunenburg County, has been prodding provincial officials about their plan to repave the road along the top of Crescent Beach, three kilometres from his home.

The project calls for removing 60 truckloads of sand from the beach’s dune system to create a five-foot shoulder on either side of the road. Removing sand from a beach is normally forbidden by the Beaches Protection Act, which says “No person shall wilfully take or remove any sand, gravel, stone or other material from a beach without the permission of the Minister.”

So Peter wrote Bruce Nunn, spokesperson for the Departments of Environment and Lands and Forestry, to ask:

1. Could you please tell me if the Minister of Lands and Forests has granted permission for the removal of sand from Crescent Beach for the repaving project.

2. If permission has been granted, I assume it was based on an environmental assessment. Could you please forward a copy all reports that discuss the environmental impact of removing so much sand from Crescent Beach.

Nunn wrote back that, “There is no sand being taken from the beach itself,” and “The Environment Department does not require an environmental assessment for a repaving project.”

In the normal, everyday meaning of the word, “beach,” as well as its scientific and ecological meaning, this is obviously bullshit. The whole place is a beach, a strip of pure sand two kilometres long and 50 metres wide, with a ribbon of asphalt running down its length.

It is, in fact, one of only two pure sand barrier beaches in the province, the other being Martinique. All the others have a core of rock and soil.

If you looked at a cross section, you’d see a high-energy, ocean-facing intertidal zone to the south, gradually rising to a thin strip of sand dunes, behind which lies that strip of asphalt, and finally a low-energy salt marsh to the north.

Weirdly, the whole thing is also a highway. The Department of Transportation owns the entire beach, shore to shore from the mainland to Bush Island. The intertidal zone is actually designated as a highway. Cars can and do drive and park along its wet sands in large numbers on warm summer days.

This short-sighted practice is a vestigial privilege from the days when the beach’s former private owner allowed fishermen to drive out to the islands. It predates the paved road, installation of which should have ended it. But whenever some incautious bureaucrat suggests closing the intertidal zone to cars, locals rise up with the ferocity of gun nuts defending the 2nd Amendment. So far, no government has summoned the courage to face them down.

Further complicating matters, Nunn has a point, albeit a narrow and technical one. As he wrote Peter:

Here is the definition of a beach under the act: (a) “beach” means that area of land on the coastline lying to the seaward of the mean high watermark and that area of land to landward immediately adjacent thereto to the distance determined by the Governor in Council, and includes any lakeshore area declared by the Governor in Council to be a beach….

The road is above the mean high watermark and the Governor in Council has not designated any land landward of the highwater mark as part of Crescent beach.

So it’s a road and it’s a beach, except it’s when not a beach because the minister hasn’t designated it as one. Such designations are made ultra conservatively, for fear someone, someday might prevent a highway paving crew from hauling 60 random truckloads of sand off one of the province’s best known beaches.

A Transportation Department spokesperson insists the excavation is needed only to recover parts of the pavement dunes have encroached upon, but the true purpose seems to be creating five foot shoulders on either side of the road.  Five foot swaths of beach grass have already been moved in preparation for the project.

The fact is that beaches and their associated dunes are living systems. They move around. From time to time, they will encroach on the roadway, a natural process the department has long managed by sending a grader to push the sand back toward the dunes.

For 21 years, Natural Resources employee Chris Trider was the province’s official beach expert. In situations like this, he would work with highway engineers to minimize disturbance to the dunes, identify vulnerable areas that shouldn’t be disturbed at all, and direct placement of removed sand in areas that could enhance the dunes’ chances of recovery.

The province eliminated his pesky position more than a decade ago, leaving no one with knowledge of fragile dune systems to help highway engineers mitigate this project’s potential for destruction.

Here’s how Trider described the situation in a post on the Ecology Action Centre’s Facebook page:

It appears they are proceeding with the road repaving project in ignorance of the dynamics of the beach and dunes, and therefore are putting the system at risk. No material should be removed from the system, sand from the road should all be used in beach nourishment, and any disturbed American Beach Grass should be transplanted to the front of the dune to help in stabilization efforts. There should be minimal disturbance to any and all dune areas.

And:

The observation that they mowed the American Beach Grass demonstrates a concerning level of ignorance of the role the grass plays in holding and stabilizing the sand dune that is essential to this beach’s survival. A cursory review from Google Earth of the historical photos from 2011 to 2016 of the beach show the deterioration of extensive sections of the dune system.

Tenders for the project closed Sept. 5. I have requested a copy of the tender documents, to see if they include any measures to mitigate removal of the sand.

While I wait, here’s an idea. Let’s take the 60 truckloads and put ’em in a sand museum. Charge the people a dollar and a half just to see ’em.

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