The time is now: Daylight the Sawmill River

The storm sewer downstream from Sullivan's pond being laid in the early 70s.

How appropriate that as I’m writing this, the rain is coming down in torrents…

This story begins 43 years ago when Hurricane Beth struck Nova Scotia. Beth was a modest Category 1 hurricane, but she dropped a substantial amount of precipitation (266 mm) over a fairly short period of time. The hurricane caused extensive damage across the province, and brought to light some serious infrastructure problems.

Dartmouth was not immune. The Sawmill River, which flows from Sullivan’s Pond to the Halifax Harbour, flooded, causing damage to more than 500 homes.

The solution of the day was to divert the river into a corrugated steel pipe that runs beneath the ground.

The storm sewer downstream from Sullivan's pond being laid in the early 70s.
The storm sewer downstream from Sullivan’s pond being laid in the early 70s.

Dartmouth has grown since 1971. More houses, more people and more roads have brought us to the point where the capacity of the old pipe is no longer sufficient. So, in the spring of 2015, Halifax Water, with funds from the federal government via Infrastructure Canada, is planning on replacing the pipe with a much larger concrete one.

Now is the logical time, while this massive construction project is taking place, for our municipal government to seize the opportunity to bring the historic Sawmill River back to life. This process is called daylighting, and it’s gaining favour all over the world, both as a way to relieve the strain on aging infrastructure and to bring nature back to urban environments.

I believe Halifax Water’s current plans should be amended so that 90% of the river passes through the buried concrete pipe while 10%  becomes an above ground stream that meanders through Downtown Dartmouth from the south end of Sullivan’s Pond into Dartmouth Cove.

There are many advantages to this scenario. Here are several put forth by the Sackville Rivers Association and the Ecology Action Centre in their briefing note on daylighting Sawmill River :


Fish Passage

An exposed stream would allow for gaspereau, sea-run trout, eels, and Atlantic salmon to spawn in the Dartmouth lake system. Fabulous for fishermen! The fish also have the potential to help cut off the nutrient supply to aquatic weeds. Good news for paddlers and swimmers.

Water Quality

A daylighted river would help enhance water quality, which is needed to maintain the Blue Flag designation at Birch Cove Beach in Dartmouth. According to studies, daylighted streams are up to 23 times better at processing nitrogen than buried streams.

Urban Development

Streams and green-spaces make urban living more attractive and desirable. Daylighting the Sawmill River means increased property values for the municipality.

Heritage Interpretation

The waterway from Lake Banook to the harbour marked an important travel way for the Mi’kmaw, and was what made the Shubenacadie Canal possible. With the closure of the canal, the stream was used to power Starr Manufacturing’s operations. The daylighted river would help the Shubenacadie Canal Commission tell the stories associated with the various phases of development in the area along the proposed Canal Greenway.

Economic Growth

Here in Dartmouth, an open waterway and green-space in the urban core, along with the interpretation of heritage features, would be a major draw to tourists and local visitors. The influx of visitors would be a boon to local businesses.


We have the chance in Dartmouth to be the first community where Halifax council’s 2006 policy regarding the daylighting of streams is implemented. Let’s seize that opportunity and bring water and nature to the heart of Dartmouth!

Rendering of a portion of the daylighted river from the 2006 Canal Greenway Report
Rendering of a portion of the daylighted river from the 2006 Canal Greenway Report

How can you help?

Send an email to our councillors and mayor. (Addresses here)

Attend the Harbour East-Marine Drive Community Council meeting at the Sportsplex on November 13th at 6pm to show your support for daylighting Dartmouth’s Sawmill River.



  1. I think this is amazing both my husband and I grew up in Dartmouth..The lakes and ponds and waterways were a part of our lives. We are proud to say we are from a beautiful city.Bringing back a natural habitat can only benefit Dartmouth in many ways. When we come back(we live in Ottawa now) it is so àmazing to see the improvements of the Harbour, lakes and walkways. BRING BACK THE SAWMILL. Andrea Perkins MacLellan & Terry MacLellan

  2. this is a geeat idea.
    Considering there is a green space just behind the Gas Station that extends to the old Pine Street ext. this would bring more ‘life’ to this area.

    • There is no doubt that homelessness is an important issue Brian, but this isn’t an either/or proposition. Realistically, the funds that would be used to daylight the Sawmill River would not go towards affordable housing or homelessness. This project will benefit community, business and environment. Many of us are working in other ways as well to address poverty issues, but there are no easy answers.

  3. Daylight the Sawmill River in Dartmouth. Take the opportunity, now (Spring 2015), to do something, which makes sense. All will benefit.
    Kim Young

Comments are closed.