Government of Nova Scotia Government of Nova Scotia Nova Scotia, Canada


Watercourse Alteration

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Questions and Answers:
Changes to the Watercourse Alteration Program

Watercourse Alteration Program

What are the changes to the Watercourse Alteration Program?

The new regulatory requirements for watercourse alterations include:

  • the types of watercourse alterations that will move from approval to formal notification, those that will still require an approval, and those that will be exempt from submission requirements
  • the need for activities being conducted under a notification to follow the NS Watercourse Alterations Standard
  • certification/qualification requirements for sizing some watercourse alterations
  • effective in 2016, certification requirement for installing or supervising watercourse alterations

When do the changes come into effect?

The changes came into effect on October 1, 2014 with the exception of the requirement for certified installers, which comes into effect October 1, 2016.

I am planning to do a watercourse alteration, such as a culvert/bridge crossing, a wharf or erosion protection in 2015. What do I need to do?

You need to determine if the activity you are planning requires the submission of a notification to the Department or if you need to apply for an approval before starting work.

The Activities Designation Regulations describe the activities that require a notification, those watercourse alterations that require an approval, and exemptions for submission requirements. Some activities also have requirements for who must design and install the alteration.

Please refer to the Activities Designation Regulations for more details about which activities require certified/qualified people. You can also refer to What are the qualifications? Quick ReferencePDF Download Link (PDF:122k) for information on the types of work that can be completed by people with varied expertise.

Please be aware there are methods that pose less risk to watercourses which we would encourage you to consider. For example, if you wish to install a wharf, a floating wharf without any disturbance to the bank or bed of a lake is a low risk activity and does not require a notification or approval. If you need to cross a stream or brook, a crossing that completely spans the watercourse without any disturbance to the bank or bed of the watercourse, it has a lower potential to damage the watercourse than the installation of a pipe culvert. A temporary structure completely spanning a stream does not require a notification or an approval.

Please refer to the What are the Regulatory Requirements?PDF Download Link (PDF:187k), the Activities Designation Regulations, and the NS Watercourse Alterations Standard for more information. Also see the Guide to Altering WatercoursesPDF Download Link (PDF:1.1mb), which identifies common alterations and whether they will need a notification or an approval.

What if I am maintaining or modifying an existing crossing structure or erosion protection material, do I need an approval or notification?

It is important that structures and other alterations in watercourses are maintained so they do not adversely affect the watercourse. If you are doing maintenance work (restoring the structure to its original state) below the ordinary high water mark during the summer season (June 1 –September 30), notification is required. If you are maintaining a deck of a bridge or any section above the ordinary high water mark, no submission is required. If you are modifying the structure (replacing, increasing the size or making it smaller) the same rules apply as if it were a new structure.

Please refer to What are the Regulatory Submission Requirements?PDF Download Link (PDF:187k), the Activities Designation Regulations, and the NS Watercourse Alterations Standard for more information

Why does notification work need to take place between June 1 and September 30?

The risk of damage to the environment is lower during the summer months between June 1 and September 30. Water levels are typically lower and storm events are typically less frequent during these months. Working during low flows will reduce the amount of sediment entering the watercourse and make the construction/installation process more efficient, thus reducing the potential for damaging effects. Completing work between June 1 and September 30 will help avoid conflict and damage during sensitive life cycle periods of the fisheries resource.

What if I want to get an extension beyond September 30 for a project I have given notification for?

Extensions beyond September 30 will require an approval. Extensions beyond the summer window require NSE review and input from Department of Fisheries and Oceans. This additional oversight aims to prevent harm to fish and fish habitat, which are more vulnerable outside of the summer window. Also additional work may be required to prevent damage as a result of rain storms and increased water flows.

What if I want to install a watercourse alteration in a Protected Water Area?

You should check the relevant Protected Water Area Regulation to see if there are additional requirements for watercourse alterations in your area or contact your municipality. The Protected Water Area Regulations can be viewed here. Any requirements under a Protected Water Area Regulation are in addition to the requirements under the Activities Designation Regulations.

How do I know if my project is happening in a Protected Water Area?

You can contact your local municipal water utility to determine whether your project is in a Protected Water Area. Please note many municipalities may have back-up water supplies. Contact the appropriate municipal water utility to determine their location.

You can also consult the following Map of Nova Scotia’s Protected Water AreasPDF Download Link (PDF:519k).

If I am completing an alteration under a notification, do I need to do it in a certain way?

Yes, you will need to follow the Nova Scotia Watercourse Alterations StandardPDF Download Link (PDF:174k). The Standard is mandatory and is enforceable. If you cannot meet the requirements in the Standard, you must apply to the department for an approval.

What’s the difference between the new NS Watercourse Alterations Standard and the old one-page specifications?

The environmental protection requirements in the old one-page specifications and the new standards are very similar. Listed below are some of the improvements that have been made in the new standards:

  • A clearer definition of watercourse slope
  • Culverts being planned by Professional Engineers on watercourses with slopes between 0.5% and 8% will need to follow DFO’s Guidelines: Guidelines for the Design of Fish Passage for Culverts in Nova Scotia, Fisheries Protection Program, Maritimes Region.
  • Enhanced and clarified environmental protection requirements for dissipation pools at the outlet of culverts

Are there any changes to the application process for obtaining an approval?

The application process for attaining an approval is essentially the same. However, the types of activities requiring an approval have changed. Some watercourse alterations now only require a notification submission.

Please refer to the What are the new regulatory submission requirements?PDF Download Link (PDF:187k) and the Activities Designation Regulations for more information.

How much will it cost to submit a watercourse alteration notification or approval?

There will be no fee to submit a watercourse alteration notification for the first few years of the program, until the department’s new online system for notification and approval processing is operational.

There will continue to be fees for approval applications. The current fees for approvals are listed in the Fee Regulations.

Can I still submit an application for a “blanket” approval if I’m doing more than one watercourse crossing?

The notification process has replaced the blanket approval process. A notification form is required for every alteration. Essentially NSE is eliminating the initial approval process and formalizing the notification.

Will watercourse alterations be audited by Nova Scotia Environment to ensure they are completed properly?

Yes, all watercourse alterations under notifications and approvals are subject to audits during or after the work to ensure regulations and the Nova Scotia Watercourse Alterations Standard are followed. As part of an audit, you may also be asked to provide information used to plan watercourse alterations, such as the calculations used to size a culvert or other crossing structure.

Certification and Qualification

What are the requirements for certification/qualification?

To build on the improvements that have resulted from an existing watercourse alteration certification training program, Nova Scotia Environment is requiring:

  • a certified watercourse alteration sizer or professional engineer to be involved in the planning or design of watercourse crossings under the notification process.
  • a certified watercourse alteration installer to be involved in all watercourse alterations (effective Oct. 1, 2016).

This is similar to hiring qualified people to select, design and install an onsite sewage system or a licensed electrician to complete electrical wiring in your home.

Please refer to the Activities Designation Regulations for more details about which activities require certified/qualified people. You can also refer to What are the qualifications? Quick ReferencePDF Download Link (PDF:122k) for information on the types of work that can be completed by people with varied expertise.

How do I get certified?

To become a certified installer or sizer a person must:

  • Successfully take a course that has been approved by the Minister. Currently, the Maritime College of Forest Technology offers courses that are approved by the Minister of Environment.

What if I received a watercourse alteration certification before October 1, 2014?

Anyone who has a valid watercourse alteration certification from Nova Scotia Environment as of October 1, 2014 will be able to do the work of a certified installers and sizers for the next five years (until October 1, 2019). Individuals who hold valid certifications as of October 1, 2014 are those people who have received a certification from NSE since January 2008.

In 2019, if you wish to continue to be certified you will need to successfully complete the training for sizing structures or for installing structures/alterations, or both.

Is a list of certified watercourse alteration sizers and installers available?

There will be a list on the Nova Scotia Environment website.

Why were professional engineers chosen to be involved in the more complex culvert crossings under notification instead of other knowledgeable and experienced people?

The requirement is for a professional engineer to design some culvert crossings under notification because their professional code of ethics allows them to work only in areas in which they are competent, providing some degree of comfort that the design of these crossings will be appropriate. Crossings on steeper watercourse slopes require a high level of expertise to design, which is most appropriately matched with the expertise of an engineer.

We encourage disciplines to work together in order to have the best designs for crossing sites. Professional engineers have the authority in NS to design structures; hydrologists understand the distribution and properties of natural water systems; and ecologists understand the complexity of living things and habitat. All of these aspects are at play when considering a watercourse crossing.

I see that watercourse alterations after October 2016 must be done by a certified installer or under the direct supervision of a certified installer. What does “direct supervision” mean?

A person who is directly supervising watercourse alteration work onsite is responsible for all work occurring, recognizes when something goes wrong and has the authority to correct any mistakes.

Hiring certified people or an engineer will be costly. Why do I need to do this?

Nova Scotia Environment has found that people with specialized training do a better job of sizing watercourse crossings and their projects have fewer compliance issues in comparison with projects done by people who have not had training.

From a cost perspective, it is important for people to know that hiring someone to properly size a crossing structure will likely reduce costs in the long term. If an undersized culvert is installed they could well be dealing with erosion of the inlet and outlet, which can require continuous maintenance, or they could be dealing with complete washouts and replacements. Debris blockages are more common in undersized culverts. Undersized culverts can also cause upstream flooding which can be severe, depending on topography and land use.

From an environmental viewpoint, there can be damage to upstream and downstream sections of the watercourse (erosion and sedimentation), affecting aquatic organisms. If the stream has fish habitat, an undersized culvert could cause fish passage issues.

Notification Process

For watercourse activities, who can be a notifier?

In accordance with the Approval and Notification Procedure Regulations, a notifier can be a property owner, a person with primary responsibility for the activity or an agent of the property owner or person with primary responsibility.

A certified watercourse alteration installer or sizer can be a notifier. The notifier must understand the regulatory obligations that apply to the activity and must ensure the activity is carried out in accordance with requirements.

How can someone submit a notification?

There are a number of ways to submit a notification form:

  • In person at your local Nova Scotia Environment office,
  • by mail,
  • or by fax.

Please submit your form to the Regional or District Environment office in your area.

In the future, we will have the ability to accept online submissions and fee payments through the new System for Notification and Approval Processing (SNAP). The development of this system is underway.

How far in advance of the activity does the notification need to be submitted?

Nova Scotia Environment must receive a complete notification a minimum of 5 calendar days in advance of the proposed commencement of an activity.

What information needs to be included in a notification?

The notification form indicates what fields are mandatory and must be completed.

Does the department review the notification?

The notification form will be checked for completeness. There is no review or decision from NSE about whether the activity can proceed. It is up to the notifier to provide complete and accurate information and to follow the requirements in the Nova Scotia Watercourse Alterations Standard. Information provided in some notification forms will be reviewed during an audit by the department.

What happens if a notification is incomplete?

If the notification is incomplete, a response indicating the notification is incomplete will be sent to the notifier. If a notifier receives a letter indicating that the form was incomplete, the work cannot commence and a new notification must be submitted.

A new notification will need to be made by the notifier before conducting the activity. A notifier must provide notification five days prior to the anticipated start date for activity and must have the notification receipt on site.

What proof will someone have of completing the notification?

Once a complete notification is received by NSE, a notification receipt will be returned to the notifier. In the future, a receipt will be generated automatically if the notification is completed online. The receipt for the activity must be on site and must be produced upon the request of an inspector.

Once I have a receipt, can I start work?

You must wait 5 days after Nova Scotia Environment receives your completed notification form before starting work. This 5-day window is intended to give the department time to process the notification, issue a receipt and in some cases, send an inspector to the site.

How quickly can I expect to receive my receipt or incomplete letter?

NSE will do its best to meet the following service standard for returning receipts and incomplete letters:

The notification receipt or incomplete letter will be put into the mail, faxed or emailed to the notifier within five calendar days of receiving the notification form. The notification receipt or incomplete letter will be sent by email if the notifier has provided an email address.

Please note: NSE encourages proponents to send in notifications forms as far in advance of the construction date as possible, to allow enough time for you to receive your notification receipt.

Can a notification be revoked?

The department may cancel a notification if an adverse effect may occur or if the activity is not being conducted in compliance with the Environment Act, any regulations or standards.

What if the activity changes and is no longer eligible for a notification but requires an approval?

The person conducting the activity must stop and contact NSE. The notification is no longer valid and an approval is required before work can continue.

Development of these changes

Why were these changes made?

These changes were made to simplify the process for lower risk and less complex activities while maintaining environmental protection. Environmental protection is maintained by having a standard that must be followed for notification activities and requiring certified people to be involved in the work. Both notifications and approvals are subject to audits and enforcement by Nova Scotia Environment.

Did the department consult on these changes?

Yes, the department sent information to people for feedback – representatives from municipalities, environmental NGOs, companies, and groups such as the Forest Products Association of Nova Scotia, Construction Association of NS, and the Federation of Agriculture. We received 16 written responses and six requests for presentations/meetings. We heard from municipalities, private business owners and groups. Many comments were supportive, seeing the introduction of the notification process as a streamlining initiative, and the introduction of mandatory certification as improving environmental protection.

Several organizations submitted extensive technical comments which helped us develop the categorization of watercourse alterations into a notification or approval process and improve the NS Watercourse Alterations Standard.

Not all comments were favorable, however, and we appreciate the concerns expressed about the need to improve compliance. Many commenters also simply pointed out where documents were unclear to them or asked specific interpretation questions. Several comments provided suggestions for a roll-out plan and training program, noting the need for ongoing and timely communication in advance of final program changes.

NSE has also extensively consulted with the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans on these program changes.

Where to go for support

Will more guidance material be developed?

Yes, a Nova Scotia Watercourse Alteration User Guide is now available User GuidePDF Download Link (PDF:1.1mb) . It provides information on the importance of watercourses, the process for notification and approvals, and best practices to avoid damage to watercourses.

Who can I talk to if I have a question about the program changes?

If you have a question about a specific project you want to do, please contact your local Nova Scotia Environment office.