Controversy on the Snye

I have often described the confluence of the Snye and Clearwater River as being "my happy place".  If you were to add up the amount of time I've spent on that sandy point (called Willow Flat on a map from 1910) it would equate to full days, likely weeks. I've done a lot of fishing and enjoyed many hours of calm reflection and communion with nature at that spot, just a few short blocks from my house. There is a lot of personal connectivity, not to mention local history, contained in this waterway that once was connected directly to the Athabasca River.

A controversial decision back then, a land bridge was constructed in 1964 to facilitate access to, and development of, MacDonald Island.  Approved by the council of the day and considered a death sentence for the Snye by others, the dyke road ultimately led to the incredible gem we have today with the Miskanaw Golf Course and the Suncor Community Leisure Centre.  Sadly, the small stretch of water that used to flow either east or west depending on the height of two two rivers it connected, is a shadow of its former self.

As a resident, I've been reading about Snye remediation schemes for the better part of a decade.  One study after another was commissioned with solutions ranging from blowing out the dyke road and putting in a bridge to increasing the size of the culvert that runs underneath the dyke to allow a greater volume of water in from the Athabasca.  Millions of dollars have been spent in trying to figure out how to bring this historic water body back to a healthier ecological place.

Meanwhile, activity and use of the Snye has marched on.  I've seen firsthand the exponential increase in the number of boats accessing the water and the inordinate number of PWCs (Persona Water Craft) or Sea-Doos that take over the Snye space adjacent to the spit of sand that often is filled to the brim with vehicles spending some time by the water.  As the watercraft have increased their activities, the float planes have dramatically reduced theirs.  In the three months since the fishing season opened on the Clearwater, I've seen two planes land on the liquid landing strip running parallel to the proposed-to-be-closed Morimoto Drive.

Community groups with interests in the Snye were given a heads up by municipal staff about changes proposed including turning the historic waterway into a DMZ, or de-motorized zone. Citing an ecological imperative that is requiring the removal of motorized craft, officials have said that it is one of several remediation steps that are necessary to "fix" the Snye. In order to set the stage for massive development, vehicular access to Morimoto is also proposed to be taken away.

Some community groups and users are supportive.  Others are incensed and making their feelings known, not buying the rationale that is being dished out, or the alternatives being suggested at various locations along the Clearwater.  They are passionate about the role the Snye has played in the history of Fort McMurray and in their lives, and they are fully engaged in holding our proverbial toes to the fire on this one.

Albert Einstein defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. We need to do something or the Snye will die.  It is already a hazard with the proliferation of weeds, brought on by a long hot summer and stagnant water.  Fuel residue from motorized users along with tonnes of storm sewer detritus don't help the situation, though they represent only a portion of the problem. The confluence requires yearly dredging as sand builds up making it very difficult to safely get through to the Clearwater late in the summer.

If the changes go forward, then my access to my "happy place" changes dramatically.  I will likely have to park somewhere close and walk over, assuming the finished product will be angler-friendly.  Others will have to find a different place to launch their boat or race their PWCs.  Lots of us have skin in the game, so to speak.  I understand why people are so activated on this issue.

At some point, the full proposal will make its way into the public realm where citizens can share their perspectives, municipal council can listen to all the facts, debate the issue, and make the best decision possible based on the facts presented.  Between now and then, my hope is that many respectful conversations take place, perspectives are heard, and all sides of this issue are explored.  We want to get this right, once and for all.


  1. I enjoyed reading this. Thank you Russell.

    Whether now or in a decade, the march of time will render the Snye unviable as a float-plane base. The economics of aviation are also at play, and many carriers have moved to amphibious aircraft operating out of the Fort McMurray (soon to be international) airport.

    Eventually, the last float will take off out of the snye either due to taller structures downtown, aviation economics, or changes in Transport Canada regulations.

    Accepting this may not be easy. It is especially hard for a guy like me who cut his teeth working in aviation in Fort McMurray. However we also have a real opportunity here. We have an opportunity to preserve and honour our aviation herritage by the very nature of our development. I would love to see an aviation herritage park in the area, perhaps an addition to the Marine Park that (one day) will be completed. I think we could also encourage any developments in the area to include architecture that pays some tribute to our aviation and marine history.

    I'll end with one of my favourite quites from Richard Bach: "What the caterpillar calls the end of the world, the Master calls the butterfly"

  2. I have never understood the need to possess water front property for private use. As I drove through BC I was disheartened at how many lakes and beaches that used to be public access transformed into private access only. Some lakes and bodies of water are experiencing this transformation in Alberta.

    Cutting off access to anglers and recreational users may seem to be in the best interest of business or real estate and banking institutions but it denies access to all except a very select few; or to deny access because of environmental concerns may seem like a

    good idea but this is counter intuitive. There are great benefits for allowing the public to engage with bodies of water, to allow access. People that are engaged with their environment appreciate it. Reducing access disengages the public as they have no experiences to associate with it. I like to use zoos and nature trails as examples... the model there is to maximize engagement so the public experiences being immersed in a world you really can't get from a book or your HDTV. Meanwhile the access could fund research as people donate to habitat recovery and a deeper understanding of biodiversity and our relationship with wetlands and watersheds. The best way to preserve something is to allow people reasonable access to it, to foster a value for a river that is biologically diverse and has several species of fish, birds and other flora and fauna that flourish there. Buildings and roads won't add engagement as we drive past at 40 kph to rush from store to store to do errands, but a short walk with a light craft, binoculars, cameras, your kids and your angler's tools will do wonders for an engaging experience.

  3. Media spin and typical Russell Thomas babbling.

  4. Cobourg, Ontario is a special and notable place particularly because there is a beach in the middle of downtown, accessible to the public. Could we not create a downtown here with that same idea in play and leave access to the Snye more available than the current Municipal plan has it? Both sides of this controversy could be satisfied with a solution of this sort. Our downtown would be a people place, with a 21st century mentality because it engages the public while still incorporating the connectedness to our environment that the current free access to the Snye represents. The 'outdoorsy' nature of this beautiful setting is part of our lower townsite's appeal and this needs to be acknowledged in a way to satisfy both the visionaries and the residents intended to be served by the vision. Revitalization doesn't have to mean a total change in the character of this place, and that seems to me like the root of the fear and opposition erupting with the revelation of more the plans for our downtown waterfront.

    Whatever the outcome, the citizenry here needs to be heard and it appears there hasn't been enough public participation in the "vision" to enjoy public buy-in at this point. My hope is that the 'compromise' mentioned in the latest Edmonton Journal article involves viewpoints from both sides of the fence - and that means more input and exchange of ideas before a final plan is enacted.

    Is that still a possibility, or is the plan a 'done deal'? I don't know.

  5. Who cares about the Snye anyway? Let's focus on why we are really here - to make money. Make your share and move on but leave something for the next group. RMWB only knows how to waste money. Look at how many times they redo one road!


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