Worried over water capacity, Stewiacke considers halting development

A row of new construction homes in Stewiacke, N.S., in 2023. (Jeorge Sadi/CBC - image credit)

A development boom in Stewiacke, N.S., could be put on hold for upwards of a year as council seeks assurances the town's water system can handle a fast-growing population.

Officials with the town in Colchester County attended a meeting of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities a little over a week ago in Calgary, which was in the middle of a catastrophic water main break that cut the city off from 60 per cent of its treated water supply.

Concerned over the water capacity in their own municipality, Stewiacke council voted last week to seek legal advice about the possibility of pausing development in the town for six to 12 months. The town solicitor is expected to attend a council meeting on June 27.

"Are we at capacity? Are we under? Are we over? Heaven forbid," Mayor George Lloy said during the June 13 meeting of the committee of the whole.

Old systems can't keep up

Carolyn Bolivar-Getson, president of the Nova Scotia Federation of Municipalities, said municipalities across the country are struggling to keep up with aging infrastructure and the need to put new pipes in the ground.

"No one is looking at stalling development for the sake of stalling development. It's a cautionary [measure] to make sure that units are able to move forward in a safe manner," said Bolivar-Getson, who is also the mayor of the District of Lunenburg.

"Once one phase of a wastewater treatment plant is completed, you're already oversold and need the next phase coming in. So it's all happening that fast."

She said water and sewer infrastructure upgrades are expensive and time-consuming, and more funding support is needed outside of existing provincial and federal programs.

Water capacity was raised as an issue in Stewiacke during the 2020 municipal election. Construction has only ramped up since then in the town, which is less than an hour's drive away from Halifax, with no sign of slowing down.

The town's population increased by 14 per cent between 2016 and 2021, according to a housing needs report released in 2023. In comparison, the provincial population grew by five per cent.

Councillor 'very concerned'

Coun. Pam Osborne said the town needs to better understand the limitations of its system before it's too late.

"I, too, am very concerned about turning on the tap and not having the water. I'm not saying that's where we're at," said Osborne. "There's been some indication from some communications from our superintendent of public works ... that it's a real possibility."

Population growth could mean implementing conservation measures during drier months, according to staff.

Lloy said the town is awaiting a revised report from engineering firm WSP on water capacity. There were issues with flow data and future population growth in the original report, according to staff.

"It's not to stop development — it's just a pause," said Lloy. "In a way, it's also protecting developers."

A provincial spokesperson said in a statement the Department of Municipal Affairs is aware that Stewiacke "is facing some challenges with water capacity and is addressing them in a way that they believe is optimal for the town in the long term."

In Calgary, meanwhile, city officials have declared a state of emergency and residents are being urged to cut back on their water usage. The portion of the water feeder main that burst on June 5 has been repaired, with crews focusing now on fixing a series of hot spots. It could be three to five weeks before repairs are complete.