2023 marks the PWA’s 25th year of incorporation. To celebrate this monumental achievement, this series will highlight 25 ecologically, historically, or socially important sites within the watershed to inspire curiosity surrounding our local ecosystems. For a chance to win a hand-selected basket of PWA merch and other eco-friendly goodies, all you have to do is 1.) post a picture at one of the 25 sites to Facebook or Instagram 2.) tag us in your post 3.) use #25watershedmoments
To visit: 46.069171, -64.809475
A view of the Petitcodiac River Causeway from the east (downstream) side, featuring the former causeway gates. Via Wikipedia
At first glance, the 280m long bridge connecting Riverview and Moncton may seem like an unexceptional piece of infrastructure. Useful, of course, but lacking the striking accompaniments that make San Francisco’s Golden Gate or Vancouver’s Lions Gate so iconic. And yet, this unassuming bridge symbolizes the culmination of a decades-long fight to restore the Petitcodiac River to its former glory. 2021 marked the first time in over half a century that the Petitcodiac’s choked channel was allowed to permanently flow freely once again. This was the year that the city of Moncton unveiled this long-awaited $61 million bridge officially replacing its recently demolished causeway for good.
But let’s go back in time for a moment; the meandering folds of the Petitcodiac River once boasted impressive ecological abundance, shaped in large part by the powerful rhythm of the Fundy tides. The exact origins of the word “Petitcodiac” are unknown; however, two likely sources are the Maliseet word “petakuyak” meaning the sound of thunder (possibly referring to the sound of rushing water), or the Mi’kmaq word “Petkootkweăk,” which translates to “the river that bends like a bow.”1 Indigenous and colonial communities alike relied on the river’s once reliable runs of Atlantic salmon, American shad, striped bass, and more.2 Before the arrival of the rail industry and the subsequent rise of the personal vehicle, “the lifestyle of [Moncton’s] residents was dictated by the Petitcodiac river, the community’s principal link with the outside world. It was Moncton’s front door, through which there passed most of the commerce and the people of the village.”3 The river was a source of food and a catalyst for the city’s burgeoning colonial economy (commercial ships routinely traversed the Petitcodiac throughout the 19th and 18th centuries).4
And yet, in 1966 the Petitcodiac’s fate was seemingly sealed when construction of a new causeway broke ground in the river’s upper estuary. The goal of the project was to connect the rapidly growing town of Riverview to Moncton and to protect vulnerable farmland from flooding—though these were not the only draws. As one journalist wrote for the Moncton Transcript in 1964, the causeway would transform the muddy brown river into a “vast new lake and recreation area” which would draw tourists and potentially store cheap drinking water. 5
The construction of the causeway, as well as its eventual removal, tells us a sobering story— one in which we convinced ourselves we could have it all. We were wrong. Before the causeway was completed in 1968, fishery scientists estimated that as many as 5,000-7000 Atlantic Salmon returned to the river each year.6 By 1998, this number had dropped to nearly zero7 contributing to the endangered status of Atlantic Salmon within the Inner Bay of Fundy which is recognized as genetically different from the salmon on the Gulf side. In 2003, one group even listed the Petitcodiac as Canada’s second most endangered river.8 Nature is resilient, but it can only take so much.
Perhaps it may seem odd to begin this series by focusing on a place that no longer exists. I did so because I see the causeway as a testament to the importance of perseverance in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles. In one sense, the removal of the causeway was a triumphant win for environmentalists like those at the PWA invested in the health of aquatic ecosystems. In another, it merely ended a chapter in a novel that is yet to be finished. The story of the causeway and the broad goal of environmental restoration both beg the question, what does a restored ecosystem look like? There is no bringing back the old Petitcodiac, there is no bringing back old-growth forests, and there is no rewind button on climate change. The sustainable environments of the future will likely look very different than they did before. The PWA is just one of the countless environmental groups around the world working tirelessly every day to deal with today’s problems and figure out what the future might hold.
Want me to feature one of your favorite spots in the watershed? Email your suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org
1 Petitcodiac River Facts for Kids. Kiddle. (n.d.). https://kids.kiddle.co/Petitcodiac_River
2Locke, A., Hanson, J. M., Klassen, G. J., Richardson, S. M., & Aube, C. I. (2003a). The damming of the Petitcodiac River: Species, populations, and habitats lost. Northeastern Naturalist, 10(1), 39. https://doi.org/10.2307/3858671
3 Larracey, E. (1985). Chocolate River: A Story of the Petitcodiac River From Its Various Roles From the Seige of Fort Beausejour Through 230 Years of History to the Present-Day Moncton.
5 Locating the causeway. (1964, February 20). The Moncton Transcript.
6 Scrimshaw, M. (2016, December 21). Petitcodiac River Bridge called a huge step – but Salmon Need More. CBC news. https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/new-brunswick/petitcodiac-bridge-salmon-1.3902039
7 Madsen, A. (2020, June 11). The tidal bore. Legion Magazine. https://legionmagazine.com/en/the-tidal-bore/
8 CBC/Radio Canada. (2010, June 7). Petitcodiac River changing faster than expected. CBCnews. https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/new-brunswick/petitcodiac-river-changing-faster-than-expected-1.94429