Community Spotlight: Winter River-Tracadie Bay Watershed Association

 In News

Hurricanes may be a scarcity in some parts of Canada, but throughout the Atlantic, they are just another common occurrence, exacerbated by climate change. Categorized by strong winds, storm surge flooding, and heavy rainfall, all of which can lead to catastrophic damage, hurricanes are certainly nothing to joke about.

In the fall of 2022 when Hurricane Fiona hit the east coast of Canada, it was no trivial storm. With wind gusts exceeding 140 km/h, Hurricane Fiona caused severe impacts throughout Atlantic Canada, becoming one of the most powerful and destructive storms in Canadian history.

As the smallest province in Canada, Prince Edward Island experienced widespread and substantial damage to its coastlines, forests and watersheds. The storm toppled trees, damaged homes, and eroded large parts of the Island’s coastline, with some areas seeing as much as 80 per cent of their trees downed or uprooted.

Last month, we got to speak with Raena Parent, the Watershed Coordinator for the Winter River – Tracadie Bay Watershed Association (WRTBWA), about their experience dealing with the impacts of hurricane Fiona, and how they handled the unexpected aftermath.

The Winter River – Tracadie Bay Watershed Association is a community based organization that works to protect and enhance the health and aesthetic qualities of the Winter River – Tracadie Bay watershed, the main source of municipal water for the City of Charlottetown.

Every watershed is unique, and Hurricane Fiona hit each of the 24 watersheds differently throughout Prince Edward island. Some were hurt worse than others with the central to East side of the province getting the worst of it.

CTV News live tracker of Hurricane Fiona Sept. 22, 2022

After the storm it took anywhere at least a week to regain power, and begin the restoration work. With the watershed looking unrecognizable, and with so much to do, it instantly became overwhelming. But as soon as they had the chance, everyone got busy.

Prep work for the upcoming spring like tree planting typically starts in the fall, but when Fiona hit, the crew had to switch gears for the health of the watershed. The main concern that settled with the debris was clearing the streams to ensure its ability to help support and transport aquatic life.

For a lot of fish, traveling the streams is absolutely crucial to spawning, with some species like Brook Trout traveling specifically up the Winter River in spawning season. With so many fallen trees, and a seemingly never ending amount of debris, there were serious concerns about the ability of the fish to navigate the streams.

“We’d see ten or 20 trees down in one area and our focus was just trying to create a tiny little hole so that water could keep moving, and fish could keep moving.”

Despite the clearing they were able to do there were still numerous concerns about the fish populations. While they hoped the work they had done was sufficient for the fall, winter could reverse all that hard work with snow and high winds furthering the blockages. And if these blockages set in, will the fish spawn, and will they still return in the spring?

Continuous checks had to be made, with considerations for certain fish species. Smelt, though relatively small fish, are weaker swimmers that could struggle to navigate the mess that remained in the streams. With diligent work and constant oversight the WRTBWA team were able to find smelt tags ever further upstream than expected after the hurricane, demonstrating how resilient nature can be.

In spite of all the devastation, Fiona renewed the community’s interest in volunteering aid, and refreshed relationships within the community.

With mass power outages across the province, some lasting up to a month, the community instantly started lending a hand and supporting one another. From supplying hot showers to those in need, to pulling out the family chainsaw, dozens of community members played a part in the storm recovery.

“Community reached out to us because they just knew that we were dealing with so much. It’s been very helpful.”

The watershed association saw professionals and everyday community members volunteering their time and expertise to lend aid in this time of need. Some members provided education to the team about dangerous cuts and the proper precautions to be taken when chainsawing. Even a professional chainsaw operator volunteered his time to help handle some of the more precarious cuts and half fallen trees.

“Community reached out to us because they just knew that we were dealing with so much. It’s been very helpful.”

Helpers from around the community came, working together alongside the watershed association to help clear the streams, undertake shoreline cleanups and deal with the scattered debris impeding the watershed.

While it’s sad the calamitous impact that Hurricane Fiona had on the watershed, the community has  pulled together to try to make things better, turning their concern for the fish and the water into restorative action for the watershed. The staff were able to plant over 3,000 trees this spring and with the help of the community they even collected almost 800KG of trash along their shorelines alone!

Of course most of the work that needed to be done after the storm came with its own set of challenges. Shoreline cleanups had to be done with great care to avoid interfering with nesting shorebirds. Stream cleaning had to be done in coordinated efforts to cause as little disruption as possible to the fish and to avoid constantly reentering their habitat. Every piece of work had to be carefully planned and reviewed to ensure the health of the watershed and its inhabitants.

During unprecedented storms a lot of adaptation needed to understand how to rebuild in a way that better withstand future storms. Luckily for WRTBWA they built such a robust water monitoring plan that they had a comprehensive understanding of water quality before and after the storm and were able to determine that the streams remained healthy. They now check up on their water loggers more frequently, sometimes weekly, even when storms aren’t present, checking for any debris that could dislodge or damage them. They are even working to create a nursery to help manage the monoculture of trees in the area, diversifying the types of trees that live there, and supporting local biodiversity.

After the storm, the PEI Watershed Alliance in conjunction with the Province’s Department of Environment’s Forest, Fish and Wildlife division hosted a training session for 24 watershed groups across the province, challenging the perceptions of Fiona’s aftermath. While storms like this are exacerbated by climate change, hurricanes are a natural phenomena, occurring around the globe. While the streams and shorelines look shockingly different to us, as long as the water is flowing, the streams can remain healthy in spite of all the debris. They were taught to rephrase the situation and change their language. It’s ‘impact’ from the hurricane, not damage. This serves as a reminder that their goal is not to get the watershed as it was before, but to manage and maintain it as it is now.

“So we’ll take a look at a blockage, and if you can see water moving through it, then we leave it. It’s caused us to change the way that we view everything, and adjust our expectations.”

Some areas may not look pretty but underneath everything is moving and healthy, with a lot of research even showing that the fish and other wildlife really like trees in the stream. Sometimes what looks like a disaster can actually just be a matter of perspective, and when something like this happens, watershed groups have to learn how to communicate to the public and people that things are going to be okay. Especially with climate change, and the rise in their occurrence, it’s important to help mitigate the overwhelming anxieties surrounding these types of events.  While it has caused WRTBWA to rethink their future plans, things now feel more manageable and they can see the results of over a year of hard work and collective action, with the shared goal of helping preserve and strengthen their watershed.

While the appearance in some areas can still be scary at times, with some trees seeming completely horizontal, the community can now see the big picture, and recovery efforts are becoming more manageable everyday.

Written by: Belle Teixeira

Jan 25th 2024