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Two young people sit on the edge of a wharf on Lunenburg Harbour in Lunenburg, N.S. on July 30, 2018.

Darren Calabrese

For a town that dons its Sunday best come tourist season, Lunenburg is having a caught-with-its-pants-down kind of summer.

You can’t see for looking that anything’s amiss. The come-from-aways are still crowding the wharves, snapping more selfies than anyone needs of the crayon-coloured houses set into the hill. The Bluenose II comes and goes in the waters that launched its famous original. On a quiet morning, a classic yellow dory of old passes by, a co-ed pair of rowers heaving oars in perfect harmony.

A few weeks back, the province announced $750,000 to make the town’s UNESCO Heritage waterfront, the classic Nova Scotia tableau, even more postcard perfect − interesting timing, some might say, given recent trouble.

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That is, the historic harbour lapping up against human activity − the town’s very reason for being − is in a rather sorry state.

Blue it may appear. But it’s dirty with sewage.

“I wouldn’t touch it,” says biologist Shanna Fredericks, the assistant director of the Bluenose Coastal Foundation, a local environmental group that has been testing along the waterfront, on the town’s dime, all summer. “I wouldn’t even want to get it on the bottom of my shoes.”

Now the locals would say, in their defence, unless you’ve never flushed a toilet, don’t be judging. Sewage treatment plants can’t perform vanishing acts, and the one in the town of Lunenburg is, according to the province, meeting required standards. But the leftovers have to go somewhere – and in this case, it happens to be a pipe under the local fishermen’s wharf, in the back throat of the harbour, just down from the hub of tourist and fishing activity. Not the best place, Mayor Rachel Bailey concedes, but that decision was before her time.

Still, this summer, the debate over the harbour’s condition − who’s to blame, what’s to be done, if anything − has taken up a renewed ferocity. To hear Ms. Bailey tell it, the rounds of social media exclamations and passionate editorializing amount to picking on Lunenburg. A busy harbour is never going to be pristine, she rightly argues, and she’s never heard of anyone getting sick from the water. (Though until the tests came back, it would have been difficult to make the link.) Yes, there have been issues with a rotten-egg smell from the sewage plant, but the town is trying to get a handle on it.

The weather of late hasn’t helped − hot, and steamy, followed by heavy, sudden rain that overflows the storm drains. The choice is either backed-up plumbing, which the tourists and townsfolk are bound to notice, or a temporary dump into the harbour, which, until recently, few paid mind to.

Teenage environmentalist Stella Bowles poses at the edge of Lunenburg Harbour on July 30, 2018, where she tested for sewage contamination next to the fishermen's wharf.

Darren Calabrese

But that was before intrepid, young Stella Bowles took a few samples of the harbour home with her last summer, to test it for the presence of fecal enterococci, which is basically what its name implies. Stella is 14, not yet in high school, but, around here, she’s an award-winning environmentalist, with a Facebook following of 4,000 and a book coming out this fall. Her Grade 6 science project exposed a similar contamination in the LaHave River, down the coast from Lunenburg, and eventually prompted the federal government, the province and the municipality to kick in funding to replace the old straight pipes still running from homes along the riverbank.

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Stella saw a picture of what looked like floaters in Lunenburg Harbour, and chose her next target. In her basement, last summer, she waited for the test results to come in. Usually, she explains one afternoon in July, sitting on a wharf in Lunenburg among the day’s tourist throng, you let the test sit for 36 hours. She had to take the sample out in less than 12. “You couldn’t pay me,” she says, to swim in this water. “It’s beautiful here. But it has a dirty secret.”

Hardly secret, any more. The official testing this summer, publicly announced by the town, only confirmed Stella’s results.

To simplify the science, think of a bar graph: Up to 175 on this graph is the limit that Health Canada has set for “secondary contact.” This means the water is deemed safe for boating and fishing, but not swimming, or any activity where you might accidentally take a few gulps. Out in the middle of the harbour the results are “pretty good,” says Ms. Fredericks; the tides are flushing the water relatively clean, and close to secondary contact level.

But it’s a different story at the waterfront, especially by the wharf with the sewage pipe and the new boat launch where the town hoped to encourage day sailors and kayakers. In some cases, those sites are recording levels of fecal enterococci greater than 2,500 – the point at which the lab just stops counting. (It’s hard to compare bodies of water, but LaHave River, even close to the local sewage system, is well below secondary contact levels.)

“The town has a serious contamination issue,” says Ms. Fredericks. “We need to be upfront and honest about that.”

Mayor Rachel Bailey speaks in her office at Town Hall in Lunenburg, N.S., on July 30, 2018. A fix for the harbour may prove costly, she says.

Darren Calabrese/The Globe and Mail

Some people think the town has been too slow to come around to this reality, including Bill Flower, who offers fishing tours out of the harbour, and just happens to dock at the wharf with the infamous pipe. Mr. Flower has been making waves for years now – he describes walking up to town hall in years past with his sewage-covered fenders and fishing rope, and dumping it on the previous mayor’s desk – but he became notorious last year when he was charged with assault, after he rubbed sludge from the harbour on Mayor Bailey’s ankles. (The case was settled with a court-ordered apology and a peace bond; the mayor says tersely, “It’s been resolved.")

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“All I am trying to do is clean up the harbour,” Mr. Flower says.

This summer, there is some movement on that front. A stakeholders committee has had its first meeting. The results of the water tests are being publicly announced. As a current measure, the town is sorting out a warning sign at the waterfront – presumably one that’s honest enough, but not tourist-deterring. The testing is expected to narrow in on the problem, which Ms. Fredericks says she increasingly expects will turn out to be the sewage pipe, too short and in the wrong spot. The town already received federal funds last year to divert some of its rainwater, but a larger fix for the harbour may prove costly – especially for a town of 2,300 residents to cover, Ms. Bailey says. (The province’s new money is only for improving the human-built structures, not the one created by nature.)

But perhaps, it’s not for nothing that Lunenburg has become the centre of a discussion about the acceptable level of water quality in our oceans, and what responsibility we owe the bodies of water that are the soul of our communities.

Bruce Hatcher, a marine ecologist at the University of Cape Breton, suggests this is an opportunity, not a burden – a chance for three levels of government with overlapping jurisdiction to set an example in a town with an international reputation to uphold. The harbour water is no doubt cleaner than it was in the days when a row of straight pumps poured in raw sewage, or when fish guts from the latest catch were tossed in willy-nilly, he says, but people’s expectations are higher now. "This could be the place where we draw a line.”

After all, if people give up on a jewel of a harbour like Lunenburg, what hope is there for all the rest?

“I am only 14,” Stella says, pointedly, on the bench at the waterfront. “It’s up to the adults to take this on.”

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