Local resident Tim Menk said finding the money to repair the structure that protects the 300-year-old village of Gabarus in Cape Breton has become a four-year battle that's mired in the murky details of who owns the seawall.
At stake for Gabarus is its fishing industry, road access to the village and several private homes, said Menk, an organizer with Friends of Gabarus.
"Without the seawall, the harbour itself could be compromised, and it has been," he said in a recent interview, noting that major storms in 2008 and 2010 battered the wall.
"We believe ... it could be, as we say, one wave away from failure."
He said the 400-metre structure was built by the federal government but rests on provincial land.
In 1995, responsibility for Canadian harbour operations changed from Transport Canada to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, the group says in a news release. Fisheries and Oceans then began divesting some of its federally owned assets, such as wharfs and breakwaters, and no longer subsidized repairs, said Menk.
However, the group now believes it has evidence the seawall in Gabarus was never divested.
"If there's not a claim of ownership stake or a proof that there's a liability or an obligation under the law, it's going to be quite difficult to prove that the wall ought to be repaired," said Menk, adding that several members of the group are retired and spend time mulling over documents trying to unravel the mystery of who is responsible for the wall.
"No records, as far as we can find, ever indicate the seawall and its responsibilities for maintenance have transferred anywhere. Based on that, we think (the federal government has) a legal obligation to repair it."
But Fisheries and Oceans says the wall is not its responsibility.
Brenda Alexander, area manager for small craft harbours for eastern Nova Scotia, said information the group has put forward has not "been substantiated by our records."
"At this point, all I can comment and say is that DFO does not own it. It sits on provincial land and we don't control it," said Alexander.
That's not enough for Menk.
"It is their job in some manner to prove that they don't have that obligation," he said.
Gene Kersey, a member of Friends of Gabarus and an environmental engineer, said the group was sent the initial findings on Sunday of an assessment that was done on the wall's integrity by Nova Scotia's Department of Natural Resources.
He said the report identifies the most damaged section of the wall, which could fail at any moment, and says the lower part of the village is at risk if the seawall collapsed.
"This is not a matter of if, but when," Kersey said in an interview on Monday. "And when the seawall fails, it would do so in a manner that would require a major commitment of time and resources."
A spokesman for the Natural Resources Department could not be reached for comment.
Mayor John Morgan of the Cape Breton Regional Municipality said about 200 residents and government officials attended a meeting in Sydney on Monday to learn more about the wall and hear the initial findings of the report from Natural Resources.
In an interview, Morgan said the municipality is ready to share the cost of repairs with the provincial and federal governments. The municipality estimates the work will cost roughly $300,000, he said, and it is prepared to pay one-third of the bill.
The seawall sits about 15 metres from the village's sheltered harbour. Based on pictures provided by Friends of Gabarus, much of the seawall's sun-bleached wood slopes, with many pieces laying loose, waiting to be swept away.
About 50 residents live in Gabarus year-round, but that number can triple in the summer.