WINNIPEG'S SHOAL LAKE AQUEDUCT

"A Legacy of Wise Public Investment"

by George Siamandas

 

ORIGINS OF WINNIPEG'S WATER SUPPLY

Obtaining clean, safe and abundant drinking water was a problem at the turn of the century. The Winnipeg Water Works company was a private business started in 1882. Operating from the current site of the Cornish Library, it supplied water drawn right out of the Assiniboine River. But the water from the Assiniboine was inadequate in quality, showing high faecal bacteria counts even then. The result was relatively high death rates from Red River fever in 1904, when Winnipeg set a world record of 19.4 deaths per 1000.

Starting in 1906, water was pumped from a system of artesian wells. But the water was very hard and not abundant enough. The search was still on for a better supply. In studies done in 1912, US consultant Charles Slichter identified Shoal Lake as having a perfect water supply worth all costs of developing a new water system; $13 million! It was a year of recession and city budgets were strained. But Winnipeggers were convinced of the need to do the right thing. In October of 1913 citizens voted in favour of the Shoal Lake Aqueduct expenditure of $13 million. Work on the Shoal Lake aqueduct began in 1913 after the election of Thomas Russ Deacon as mayor. It took five and a half years and all of the $13 million but in March 29, 1919 the work was completed and Winnipeg's water supply became about the best in the country.

WHY THE AQUEDUCT IS CONSIDERED SUCH A LEGENDARY SUCCESS?

The aqueduct was a significant engineering feat and was called the "Rome of the West." A railway was built to provide access along the route which lacks a road. The aqueduct is simply a concrete tube 156 km long. Since the source at Shoal Lake is 294 feet higher than Winnipeg, gravity brings water to the edges of the city where it feeds four water reservoirs. The main reservoir is named the Deacon after the mayor. The best part of it is that this 76 year old system still works. We have gone from a population of 200,000 when it was built to a city four times the size and with modern appetites. It still delivers 80 million gallons per day as originally designed. Today the average person uses 480 litres per day or 106 gallons.

HOW GOOD IS WINNIPEG'S WATER?

The water is considered to be of high quality. No treatment is done excepting fluoridation (started in Dec 28 1956), and chlorine which is added to keeps bugs down. Treatment is anticipated in the near future, particularly as the public's expectations increase.

In today's political climate there is a pre-occupation with taxes and watching spending. But it was also a concern in 1913. Yet our forefathers demonstrated that when a city thinks it has a future, it has to be prepared to invest in it. Deciding to spend the $13 million it took in 1913 has given us a legacy, and an asset, not the debts we leave today for future generations. The Shoal Lake Aqueduct's equivalent value today is about $270 million.

And while expansion is anticipated during the next decade, water conservation can postpone needed upgrading by 1 year for every percentage reduction in usage. If this isn't enough, engineering studies have considered alternative sources like Lake Natalie, ground water from Sandilands and even the Assiniboine. But Shoal Lake is likely to remain the future source. Conservation coupled with prudent maintenance of the system seems the most cost effective choice of all.

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