Summer Student Series 2023: Charlotte Cahill

September 12, 2023


As a summer intern at East Coast Environmental Law ("ECEL"), I conducted legal research on wetland legislation and policy in Nova Scotia, across Canada, and internationally. Through my research, I identified gaps in Nova Scotia’s current wetland protections and identified best practices in other jurisdictions. The goal of the work was to contribute to advocacy for more effective wetland stewardship in Nova Scotia using law and policy. 

The value of Nova Scotia’s wetlands

Nova Scotia’s wetlands have cultural, social, and ecological significance. Wetlands support medicinal and ceremonial plants that are important to the Mi’kmaq, are a key source and driver of biodiversity, and provide numerous ecosystem services and functions that can help Nova Scotian communities adapt to and mitigate against climate change.[i] For example, coastal wetlands (i.e., salt marshes) are blue carbon ecosystems, which means they sequester carbon in amounts much greater than other terrestrial carbon sinks. Coastal wetlands also help to protect shorelines from erosion, flooding, sea-level rise, and storm surges caused by extreme weather events (like hurricane Fiona in 2022).[ii]

Wetland legislation and policy in Nova Scotia 

Wetlands in Nova Scotia receive legal protection under both provincial and federal laws, and they receive additional protection from localized municipal planning processes. For example, Nova Scotia’s Environmental Assessment Regulations, created under the Environment Act, require environmental assessments for projects altering two or more hectares of wetland. Environmental assessments are used to determine the adverse effects of a project.[iii] Where effects will be significant, environmental assessments may result in rejection of a proposed project, or the project may require measures to mitigate against these effects.

Nova Scotia’s Wetland Conservation Policy (“the Policy”) serves as a framework to guide wetland conservation efforts.[iv] The Policy recognizes wetlands for their important functions and establishes a goal of preventing the net loss of wetlands in the province.[v]

Policy gaps and opportunities

The Policy is important because of the guidance it provides, but it is over a decade old, and progress towards its objectives is difficult to evaluate. For example, although one of its objectives is updating the province’s wetland inventory, there is no indication the inventory has been updated.[vi] This is problematic because an accurate inventory of wetland types and locations is essential to inform wetland management decisions and track the Policy’s goal and objectives.[vii]

Another section of the Policy in need of an update designates “Wetlands of Special Significance.” This designation protects wetlands with especially important ecosystem services or functions (like providing habitat for species at risk) from development and destructive human activity.[viii] There appears to be no public engagement process in place to identify new significant wetlands, leaving many without legal protection. 

Other jurisdictions may offer examples of best practices that Nova Scotia could adopt into law or policy to achieve wetland stewardship. For example, New Brunswick released “A Water Strategy for New Brunswick 2018-2028” (the “water strategy”) in 2017 that called for the creation of implementation guidelines for their wetland policy and a new, more accurate online wetland map.[ix] As a result of the water strategy, the province has completed implementation guidelines that detail the processes for wetland protections and released a new wetland map.[x] The map is to be updated annually to increase the effectiveness of their wetland alteration permitting process.[xi]


Nova Scotia’s wetlands provide ecological, social, and cultural benefits. Having robust tools for wetland inventory, assessment, protection, and education in the policy can help the province meet its goal of no net wetland loss, but the policy currently falls short. Looking to other jurisdictions for examples of wetland stewardship can help address Nova Scotia’s policy gaps. 

I am grateful I had the chance to get involved with this work. I am hopeful I can continue to support ECEL and its partners as they push for policy updates to protect wetlands for the benefit of Nova Scotians.

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Charlotte Cahill

Charlotte's work with us this summer was enabled by the Schulich Academic Excellence Fund for Internships, which is an internship funding program administered by the Schulich School of Law at Dalhousie University.



[i] Nova Scotia, Nova Scotia Wetland Conservation Policy (September 2011) at pages 4-5 ["WCP"].

[ii] WCP at page 4.

[iii] Environmental Assessment Regulations NS Reg. 26.95 amended to Reg. 328/22, Schedule A, Class I, at section F(2). 

[iv] WCP at page 1.

[v] WCP at page 9.

[vi] WCP at page 6.

[vii] WCP at page 12.

[viii] WCP at pages 11-12.

[ix] Government of New Brunswic, A Water Strategy for New Brunswick (December 2017) at section 16.

[x] Government of New Brunswick, Department of Environment and Local Government, “A Water Strategy for New Brunswick Progress Report – December 2021” (December 2021) at page 8.

[xi] Government of New Brunswick, “New online watercourse and wetland alteration reference map now available” (2 January 2020).