The Conception Bay South breakwater was breached after a storm in January.
The Conception Bay South breakwater was breached after a storm in January. Photo courtesy of Rick Stanley/Ocean Quest

The Ocean Is Swallowing a Town That Can’t Afford to Fight Climate Change

A failing breakwater in Conception Bay South in Newfoundland shows just how ill-prepared most places are for the climate crisis.
October 14, 2021, 3:02pm
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Tipping Point covers environmental justice stories about and, where possible, written by people in the communities experiencing the stark reality of our changing planet.

As Hurricane Larry swept across eastern Canada last month, residents of Conception Bay South, a coastal community on Newfoundland’s Avalon peninsula, braced for the worst. 

Candidates in September’s municipal election removed campaign signs, expecting 100 km/h winds. Others worried about their boats tied up in the harbour, while some just tied down whatever they could. Many residents, however, simply hoped the breakwater would hold.

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With a population of roughly 26,000, Conception Bay South is the largest town in the province. At its heart is a series of harbours called upper and lower Long Pond, which are protected by a narrow breakwater built on top of a naturally formed barachois, the narrow beach-rock bar that separates the coastal lagoon from the ocean.

Without the breakwater “you’d have homes that were completely exposed to the open ocean and relatively low-elevation homes,” said Ted Perrin, a former navigation officer who has lived most of his life along the shores of Long Pond.

Though the breakwater held up during September’s hurricane, residents haven’t always been so lucky.

In January 2020 a winter storm slammed the island, plunging the community into a state of emergency, and breaching 300 metres of the breakwater. The town was left exposed to pounding storm surges that destroyed wharves, damaged boats, and filled the channel with rocky debris. 

Approximately $1.4 million in repairs had already been made before a storm destroyed the breakwater again a year later.

Breaches in the Conception Bay South breakwater in January. Photo courtesy of Pierre Gauvreau

Breaches in the Conception Bay South breakwater in January. Photo courtesy of Pierre Gauvreau

Though the breakwater has protected the community for over half a century, since its construction there have been at least eight breaches due to unusual storm surges—half of which have occurred within the past 10 years.

“My father’s been here 66 years. He’s seen a fair share of storms, high tides, and hurricanes, and he says they definitely are more frequent,” said Perrin.

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“What has happened—and I have no doubt, is that climate change is starting to become a factor.”

The world’s coastal cities are bracing for climate change with massive investments in infrastructure designed to withstand rising tides and heightened storms.

New York City has committed $500 million to protect Lower Manhattan, while Miami has a $3.8 billion plan to fortify its coast and alleviate flood risks.

In Singapore, where Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong called climate change an existential threat to the country, the government has committed nearly $72 billion preparing for the global worst-case scenario.

But as these cities batten down the hatches with billion-dollar investments, towns like C.B.S. are treading water just to maintain their existing infrastructure, already at a prohibitive cost for most communities in the province.

Newfoundland and Labrador has a predominantly coastal population, with about half of the island’s half a million residents living in St. John’s and the surrounding metro area. In a report presented to City Hall last year, researchers predicted increased rainfall, sea-level rise, and more frequent storms for the province over the next 30 years.

“With sea-level rise and increased storm intensities, you can get a greater storm surge,” said Joseph Daraio, an associate professor at Memorial University’s Faculty of Engineering.

After the damage this year, Conception Bay South fixed the breakwater with new armour stone. Video still courtesy of Paul Flynn

After the damage this year, Conception Bay South fixed the breakwater with new armour stone. Video still courtesy of Paul Flynn

Working with Natural Resources Canada to train engineers and provide resources for designing climate resilient infrastructure, the challenge, said Daraio, is that we can no longer rely on past benchmarks for new projects.

“When you’re designing any kind of infrastructure, traditionally, you’re using historical data,” he said. “And you can only go by what has occurred.”

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Now, what were once the most severe conditions a project could withstand are liable to become the new normal.

“You can’t base your design for 30-50 years into the future on what’s happened in the past anymore, because it’s going to be different,” Daraio warned. “With climate change, the historical data becomes unreliable.” 

For towns like C.B.S. this means existing infrastructure may not be able to withstand the rigours of new climate pressures. Development around the barachois has been a point of contention in the town for over a century: the common complaint being that wealthy residents who live near the water have made changes to the area that predominantly benefit themselves.

The channel that connects the two ponds was dredged in 1957 so that members of the newly formed yacht club could sail into the upper pond. In doing so, a bridge that had once allowed inland farmers to gather capelin, a small shore-spawning fish, for fertilizer was removed and never rebuilt.

Continuing animosity over the decades has made its way to social media, where residents often trade vitriol in the town’s Facebook groups.

Some of that discontent centres on the 2016 transfer of responsibility for Long Pond Harbour from the federal government to the town, and along with it a $1.6 million grant for maintenance of the area.

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Frustrated residents claim that money was mismanaged by the town, with $1 million being spent on a new park, leaving little for the necessary maintenance of the breakwater.

The former mayor of Conception Bay South, Terry French, who did not seek re-election in this year’s municipal race, did not respond to multiple requests for comment. 

Perrin believes the breakwater has made the difference between major storms and disaster events, but he says it’s municipal negligence, rather than the effects of climate change alone, that have caused it to fail.

“It’s critical infrastructure that has to be maintained,” he said. “The town of C.B.S. [is] doing a very poor job of maintaining it.”

After last year’s breach, the town received emergency funding from the government to fix the breakwater, and after the damage this year, replaced the existing beach rock with new armour stone.

It’s a solution that doesn’t leave Perrin feeling confident. That armour stone, he said, is just sitting atop the same beach rock that has been washed away before. Without proper maintenance he fears it’ll wash away again.

“If they’re not monitoring it they could really miss the changes, and we could get into a situation where... we’ve got a major breach and damage to homes.”

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Barricading the island behind a wall of armour stone isn’t a realistic solution for the challenges which communities across the province will face over the next 30 years.

Fortunately, Daraio said the thinking is slowly changing. “We’re designing now for the conditions in the future, so that when something happens that’s maybe never happened before… we’re ready for it,” he said.

But while he would like to see towns like C.B.S. create multi-decade plans to update infrastructure for climate resilience, he admitted that’s idealistic.

“The resources aren’t there for municipalities,” he said, “really just because they don’t have enough money. They don’t have the people.”

Particularly in the case of smaller communities, where local companies bid for contracts on work, some may be hesitant to add the extra costs associated with designing for the future into their proposals, especially when new parameters haven’t been formally implemented into the existing design codes.

In many ways, according to Daraio, the infrastructure response to climate change is one of planned retreat.

“You need to kind of accept that these areas are going to change,” he said. “Some of these areas will be uninhabitable. There’s nothing you can do about it.” 

“These are changes that are happening—are going to happen—and we need to confront them.”

Follow Conor McCann on Twitter.