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Mount A professor believes money for isthmus study better spent on solutions

Ollerhead says governments need to understand costs associated with fixing dikes, infrastructure

SACKVILLE, N.B. – It’s one thing to study the threat of rising sea levels on the Isthmus of Chignecto, but a professor at Mount Allison University says it’s quite another to match money with what’s needed to protect the narrow strip of land that separates Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.

Jeff Ollerhead, a professor with the university’s geography and environment department, is questioning why another study of the isthmus is being done when others have already been completed.

“As long as they’re not studying the problem, which has already been well defined, and they’re studying the solutions, as in mapping out sections of dike and looking at the options and ... cost-benefits analysis, then that would be reasonable,” Ollerhead said. “Then they have to find the resources to begin implementing that plan.”

Ollerhead’s comments come after international engineering firm Wood Environment and Infrastructure Solutions was hired by the New Brunswick government to complete a study of the dike infrastructure by next February.

The company has been asked to present three solutions to protect key infrastructure along the 20-kilometer isthmus including the Trans-Canada Highway and the CN rail line as well as the electrical infrastructure across the Tantramar Marshes and communication links including fibre optic cables.

While the study is costing $700,000, Ollerhead said the fixes are going to come at a much higher price tag. He’s hoping the two provincial governments and federal government are committed to spending the money required to fix the aging infrastructure that’s at risk of being overcome by predicted sea level rise and potential storm surges expected to worsen due to climate change.

“My numbers are outdated, but speaking to people over here I’ve been told their budget is $400,000 to $450,000 a year to look after 88 kilometers of dike. There’s no way they can keep it all in good condition, and they knew that, but there’s nothing they can do about it,” Ollerhead said. “If they’re concrete solutions with clear recommendations of how to move forward it (the study) will have value.”

Ollerhead said he has talked to his students about this for at least two decades. It’s not a new conversation that communities like Sackville, N.B. and Amherst are threatened.

“It’s a question of when are we going to develop a plan to do something,” Ollerhead said.

He said consultants will have to choose three options from what scientists call the 4Rs, including raising and reinforcing the dikes and put in bigger aboiteaux, retreating by moving the dikes or potentially relocating infrastructure – something he said would be very expensive considering the presence of the highway and railway and their proximity to the dikes.

Considering $50 million in commerce passes through the isthmus daily, the cost of doing nothing is too high, he said.

“The do-nothing option is not a viable option,” he said. “No matter what the study comes out and says at the other end there will need to be resources allocated.”

Ollerhead said sea levels are higher than they were 10 years ago and will grow in another 10 yeas. Scientists, he added, have been conservative with estimates of sea level rise, but information coming from the United States indicates it's being under-estimated. 

He said a repeat of the 1869 Saxby Gale would be devastating and if it happened during the spring tide, when water levels are at their highest, it would do a lot of damage.

To him, a strategic plan is required that could see newer dikes built and older ones removed.

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