There are two Sandy Lakes on Hammonds Plains Road, HRM. The one in Glen Arbor is sometimes called “Little Sandy Lake”, but this article is about the one nearer the Bedford Basin that is sometimes called either “Big Sandy Lake” or “Sandy Lake, Bedford”. It is a part of the Sackville River watershed and is a headwater for Peverill’s Brook and ultimately the Bedford Basin.

Over the decades, several organizations have worked to protect Sandy Lake and environs. The Sandy Lake Conservation Association (SLCA) and Sackville Rivers Association (SRA) are currently leading a coalition of groups that are working to protect this area that stretches from the Hammonds Plains Road to the Sackville River and encompasses three lakes and several waterways within the Sackville River Watershed. In the past, the Sandy Lake Watershed Association protected the lake, and prior to that there was the Sandy Lake Resident’s Association, itself preceded by the Sandy Lake Ratepayers Association. Residents of the area have been looking out for Sandy Lake and area’s welfare for at least 50 years.

Nearly 50 years ago Sandy Lake/Jack Lake/Marsh Lake and the Sackville River was one of 7 proposed regional parks -seven unique “jewels in the crown” of Halifax-Dartmouth that should be protected for their ecological richness and for community education and recreation. Each area was seen as unique from each other and outstanding in its own right. The Canada Land Inventory Recreation Capability Survey gave Sandy Lake the highest rating of any inland site around the Metropolitan area.

Over the years, all six of the other areas (including McNabs Island and the Shubenacadie Canal ) have been preserved, but Sandy Lake Regional Park ran into difficulties of various kinds. At amalgamation, the Town of Bedford’s work to acquire land and create the regional park there fell by the wayside.

Previously, when Sandy Lake was in the County of Halifax not part of Bedford for the lake region to become a regional park the County, Bedford, Dartmouth and Halifax all had to agree on that designation. A local resident offered to give 500 acres at the west end of the lake to the municipality for the park, if the park were named after her deceased husband. At the same time, the county warden was looking to increase tax income. Farmers Dairy was looking for a site to relocate their dairy outside the city proper and a large property along the southwestern shore of Sandy Lake which suited their needs (proximity to the city plus lake water) came up for sale. We understand that the county warden chose to approve the dairy to increase county taxes and declined the land offer for the park.

There were even fewer regulations to protect lakes and waterways back then, and people in general were unaware of the consequences of some of their activities. The dairy clear cut 50 acres and in-filled a roadway, added a culvert, over the main lake feeder stream (you drive over it going to the gate) which caused such runoff that the lake was muddy brown for two years. The plan was to dump the milk effluent into the lake as well. So the Sandy Lake Ratepayers Association was formed, hired consultants and worked with the politicians and the dairy to get the plan to pump milk effluent into the lake dropped in favour of the holding ponds you see on your left as you drive to the dairy gate. The dairy, now Agropur, has been a good corporate citizen for the area and the lake.

Despite the move toward industrializing the lake, at the same time, efforts to create the park here was proceeding. The 1979 MAPC park plan contained detailed conceptual plans for the park. The impact of the dairy’s location to the lake was such a shock that the Association began to work with the Town of Bedford (by then the lake area was part of Bedford) to ensure that it become easier to protect the lake. The Bedford Mayor, Francine Cossman, saw the importance of this area. By 1983, after failed attempts of the various levels of government to create the park, Mayor Cossman and the Association hit upon a device for protecting the lake—a by-law that would allow no new development unless one owned 5 acres on a publically serviced road that was a public road before October 9, 1991. This regulation is still protecting the lake, but of course land assembly started up as developers eyed the lake. Over the next few years further efforts to preserve the park ideal continued as Bedford purchased and acquired parts of the shore for the proposed park. In 1992 Farmer’s Dairy gave 6 acres of shoreline to the town for the park with the requirement that there be no vehicular traffic permitted on that land.

The next issue arose from a Lions Club desire to mark the millennium with a public project. The original proposed park plan (from the MAPC plans) had included a small beach park where the Lions beach park now exists. The city and Province and Lions Club donated $500,000 for the recreational development. While surveys of the Bedford and Hammonds Plains communities for recreational preferences all suggested that people wanted an indoor year-round “swimming opportunity” and hiking trails, the beach plan was chosen. There were numerous struggles over that design – grades, drainage and backfilling plans had to be adjusted so that there would be no washouts and flooding. The plan to remove the trees and the natural shore berm and add tons of sand to make a bigger beach, which would have destroyed a protected fish breeding area, was altered to protect the shoreline and wildlife. Planners proposed flush toilets which would have required cutting down a football-sized area of old growth Acadian forest along the shore to create the disposal field. The Association was able to make the case for the “trailhead” peat toilets used by Parks Canada and the US National Parks Service which were installed and have worked well. The trees were saved, the ecosystem and the beauty of the area were preserved, and the beach has been a fine addition to the lake. Again, residents worked with decision-makers to see to the lake’s needs.

Somewhere in the midst of all the meetings and activities around the beach project some in the Association realized that there would always be issues that could harm the lake, and that, in the end, it was the quality of the water that had to be protected. So the Sandy Lake Watershed Association was started. For several years there was regular water testing carried out by the Bedford Water Advisory Committee…that was eventually cut from the city’s budget. We understand the will to continue to spend the ~$3,500.00 a year for testing all lakes in HRM was lost somehow, so not only Sandy Lake suffered from that cut. As the Lion’s Park Beach progressed, the organization managed to eliminate a planned boat launch facility, reducing the number of motorized water craft using the lake and thereby further protecting the sensitive wildlife.

Sandy Lake is a small lake with a more fragile ecosystem than most. It takes 4 to 6 months for the lake to “flush” itself, for example, (depending on the research study referenced) so it is vulnerable to pollutant build-up. It also has nesting loons (loons are on the bottom rung, so to speak, of the endangered species list) which are very vulnerable to speed boat travel and to changes in water acidity. Old growth forest can be found in areas around the lake. Wildlife such as deer, mink, ermine, beavers and more live along its banks. Nesting pairs of Osprey and Barred Owls live near the lake, and it is alive with aquatic life.

A large area on the eastern side of Sandy Lake – the Jack Lake lands – appears secure. Lands to the west and north of Sandy Lake that are critical for maintaining the integrity of Sandy Lake and the watercourse through Marsh Lake to the Sackville River are at risk. A clear-cut of old forest in 2013 raised alarm bells. Now those lands lying close to Sandy Lake could be developed with residences for as many as 12,000 people. Sandy Lake is one of many jewels across HRM that continue to wait for legal protection from development, and it may not be able to wait forever.

There was once a Department of Fisheries and Oceans study on the lake to test methods for balancing pH—at a time when the entire southern end of the province was losing fish because of acid rain from the US northeast. Scientists added industrial levels of limestone to the lake to adjust the pH, but it had minimal effect. It is thought that the lake may be balanced naturally because large springs filling the lake from the bottom flow through limestone deposits. After a year and a half the study was halted. Sandy Lake is unique in this way, and thanks to this and to the efforts over the years to ward off threats to the lake’s health, Sandy Lake’s water quality remained quite good, thus allowing for the abundance of natural life in and around it.

However, recent limnological observations suggest that Sandy Lake is now in a precarious state, and almost certainly would not survive the cited development. A large amount of black rotting bark and wood bits is evident where the stream from the clear-cut enters the lake. With such precious populations of fish, amphibians, turtles and other wildlife including river otters, why shouldn’t we strive to ‘walk the story backwards’, towards a cleaner, oligotrophic state; this is even more urgent in the era of climatic warming.

There are many reasons why the Sandy Lake lands are worth protecting in the form of a Sandy Lake Regional Park. The Sandy Lake watershed is the largest sub-watershed of the Sackville River and hosts populations of seagoing American eel, Atlantic salmon, Gaspereau and speckled trout. The integrity of this system is critical to the Sackville Rivers Association’s efforts to revive salmon in the Sackville River system. This park would protect Bedford from increased flooding by protecting the Sackville River flood plain. The wetlands bordering Sandy Lake and Marsh Lake and along much of Peverill Brook leading to the Sackville River host a complex, healthy, ecosystem that includes large populations of amphibians and turtles. Sandy and Marsh Lakes are bordered by rich drumlins that support magnificent mixed, multi-aged Acadian forest with significant old growth stands. The whole sweep of forest provides a wildlife corridor at the neck of the Chebucto Peninsula, north to the Sackville River and the mainland – an important link to be preserved by the city’s Green Network Plan.

Currently a wide variety of outdoor activities are conducted on these lands, including mountain biking, bird watching, swimming, paddling, fishing, dog-walking, cross country skiing and snow-shoeing to name a few; the power lines are popular corridors for ATVs. There are wonderful opportunities for “forest bathing” amidst old growth and along hemlock lined sections if Peverill’s Brook. There is so much more potential – if we can save it now. Few even know it exists – a rich and unique jewel of nature only 20 minutes from downtown.

To protect this ecosystem and its watershed is why we established the Sandy Lake Conservation Association. We had believed that a Regional Park was still the long term plan. We were unaware of the 2006 change at City Hall to designate this area as a potential Urban Settlement area. Apparently councillors in City Hall were also unaware of the history and fragility of Sandy Lake, or of the long term plan to create a regional park here. These facts came to light when we heard tree cutting machines stripping the 200 acre plot that includes the far tip of the lake. We learned a lot. There are huge loopholes in the land development system that allow developers to clear cut huge properties without having either a forestry permit or a HRM application for housing approved.

On August 22, 2013, with no options left, we engaged the media to try to stop the cutting of trees nearest the lake because that area had the most potential to be included in or linked to a regional park around Sandy Lake. HRM’s development process requires that 10% of the value of developed lands must go to parkland, and this area had prime park land potential. On Friday August 23, 2013 the developers agreed to stop cutting at least temporarily. The painful irony is that these 200 acres were once part of the 500 acre gift that had been offered for the park.

Sandy Lake clear-cut in progress 2013, as seen from Lions’ Club Beach
Since then we have worked hard to raise awareness so that Sandy Lake, Jack Lake and March Lake, this beautiful trio of lakes so close to Bedford, Sackville and Hammonds Plains, can be protected and serve the many important functions of such a beautiful natural area so close to the city’s major growth areas. In 2015 the city acquired from this same developer 160 un-cleared acres near Marsh Lake and Sandy Lake. We are very grateful for this and we respectfully request further acquisitions of land around Sandy Lake and environs before future development can threaten the recreational possibilities and the natural treasures. Once an area is paved it can never go back.

With development coming ever nearer to the lakes, we have reached a crossroads. We invite the city’s sharing in the long term vision that the residents have worked so hard and long to bring to fruition, for the benefit of the lakes and accompanying wildlife, to protect the Sackville River’s watershed, to become part of the RP+5’s goal for a Green Network, and to provide a substantial park for public access to nature and recreation for this growing part of the city.

Check our website www.sandylake.org for developments as they unfold. To support our efforts to protect this lake please also sign up on our SLCA website comments section.