One of my favourite places in Halifax is the Holy Cross Cemetery at South and South Park Streets. Its terrain, with unexpected swales and depressions and interesting hillocks, is a snapshot of what the entire peninsula must have looked like before Europeans showed up and started scraping off the highlands to fill in the gullies, bringing an unnatural, uniform flatness to the place. 

With all that flattening, the countless creeks that once criss-crossed the peninsula were shunted aside, stuck in pipes, covered with fill and mostly forgotten about. They did not, however, go away. Despite our best attempts to tame them, the streams remain wild creatures and, on occasion, they escape their cement cages and wreak havoc.

Such, in part, is what happened twice in recent weeks when an ancient watercourse called Freshwater Brook (which once flowed in the open through Holy Cross and down to what is now Pier 21) pushed through its pipe, deluging the basements of several apartment buildings on Barrington, most notably the Peninsula Place building, whose garage was filled with dozens of residents’ cars.

That, however, is not the entire story. When our predecessors built the city’s first sanitary sewer system, they dumped poop into those same pipe-enclosed streams and flushed it into the harbour, untreated. Health officials warned as early as the 1910s that the situation was intolerable, but it took 90 years before we got around to constructing the $315-million Harbour Solutions project.

The “solution” was inelegant and imperfect. Instead of putting a new, separate set of pipes in the ground to handle waste, those old pipes carrying both poop and streams were just plugged into the new sewer plant. The project also diverted maybe a dozen smaller unnamed streams into Freshwater Brook, turning the now very inappropriately named Freshwater Brook into a sort of poop highway, carrying not just poop from the area around the stream, but also poop from throughout the south end and from as far away as Armdale. All that poop now enters a gigantic poop pumping station, which sits right across the street from Peninsula Place Apartments. So, when the Freshwater Brook escapes, it brings with it half the city’s poop, depositing it in Buddy Renter’s car.

Politicians and bureaucrats are now playing a prolonged game of Cover Your Ass. (City council discussed the issue Tuesday, but unnecessarily---
and probably illegally---secretly, behind closed doors.) Whether fault lies with Dexter Construction, which built the pumping station, or with project engineers or with decades of stupid building decisions, at this point seems almost beside the point because even when people’s cars aren’t being filled with poop, every time it rains and despite our $315 million, all that poop still breaks free of the pipes and gets dumped in the harbour, untreated.

The repeated Peninsula Place flooding should highlight the considerable shortcomings of Harbour Solutions. It’s going to take a lot more money and political leadership to make our still-bad sewer system right. That means putting in separate, poop-only pipes and leaving the old streams alone.

In the long run---and yes, I’m a dreamer---we might one day join the international “daylighting” movement, which brings “lost” urban streams above ground. Imagine our city, at least in places, laced with clean bubbling brooks and creekside parks, bringing renewed wildness to our dead city landscape. Such would be an added benefit of fixing Harbour Solutions.

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