Drought in Ontario
Flooded in spring, driedout in summer, towns and countryside suffer from man's past profligacy in the forest
LAST SPRING, as usual, floods in various parts of Ontario provided news for the front pages of the newspapers. Property damage was severe and a few persons were drowned. It seemed then that the province would never be troubled by a lack of water. Its situation is unique, for it is surrounded by lakes and bays and criss-crossed by large rivers. Every inland city and town seems to have a river running past its door, and rainfall is sufficient. The viewpoint of rural dwellers was summed up in the remark of one farmer who said last year: “I’ve never seen a crop failure in Ontario, and I don’t suppose I ever will.”
But those who have studied the situation in recent years have given warning that a change is taking place in this province, just as surely as in other parts of the continent. It was not until the 1936 dry season, however, that the farmers had actual crop losses because of drought conditions. Some towns, such as Dundas and Cainsville, had an acute water famine and drinking water was brought in tanks from other municipalities. In many other towns and cities the use of water was restricted. In the townships, wells and springs dried up and farmers drove their cattle to some river or lake.
The acute water shortage in Ontario last year was due in part to insufficient rainfall, which affected grain crops particularly. But that was only one of the reasons why the rivers ran low, wells dried up, and the ground water sank lower and lower in the soil. The chief reason why there was so little water in the rivers last fall was that there was so much last spring. Floods and drought can be traced to the same sources. They are opposite angles of the same problem.
As a result of increasing spring floods, followed by low water in midsummer, many municipalities, including large industrial centres, face serious difficulties. A diminishing supply in municipal wells has forced cities to secure water from rivers and other surface sources; sewage disposal problems have become complicated, and large sums have been spent for protection against floods. Now some municipalities find themselves at the end of their resources, and they are appealing for Government aid. Although drought conditions are not yet as serious in Ontario as in parts of the prairie provinces, there are responsible authorities who claim that the conservation of water is the most serious problem facing Old Ontario today.
Grand River Once Navigable
SUPPOSE WE take the Grand River as a typical example of what is happening to all the rivers in the older settled parts of Ontario. We choose the Grand for several reasons. It is the longest and most important inland stream in Southern Ontario. Along its banks are some of the chief industrial centres in Ontario. The route it follows has been settled for a century or more, and the timber has been cleared thoroughly -too thoroughly—off the farms in its watershed. In no other area in the province is there such a concentration of population, except in Toronto and Hamilton and their suburbs. The river gives life to a large district, which cannot exist without it. Finally, the problems of the Grand River drainage area have been studied more thoroughly than those of other Ontario rivers. Pioneer work has been done along this stream which will prove of value to other drainage areas of the province in the future.
The Grand River rises within twenty-five miles of Georgian Bay, on a tableland with an altitude over 1,700 feet above sea level, and it flows southward into Lake Erie at Port Maitland. The river is 180 miles long and drains an area of 2,600 square miles. Scattered along the Grand and its tributaries are the cities of Brantford, Galt, Kitchener and Guelph, as well as such important towns as Waterloo, Preston, Hespeler, Fergus, Elora, Paris, Caledonia, Cayuga and Dunnville, all of them industrial centres.
Eighty years ago the Grand was a navigable stream. A fleet of steamboats plied from Buffalo to Brantford, fifty-five miles upstream from Lake Erie. For another seventy-five miles, as far as Elora, canoes and rafts carried people and produce. Above that, each spring, logs were floated down to sawmills at Grand Valley, Fergus, Elora and Galt. Square timbers, cut by French-Canadians in the bush during the winter, were taken downstream to be loaded on the first railway at Galt. Every city, town and village from Grand Valley to Caledonia owed its location to the fact that the Grand provided ample water power for early industries.
The Grand is no longer navigable even to a canoe, except in those short stretches where dams or rapids hold back the water. In mid-August, 1936, it was completely dry from Fergus to its source near Dundalk, a distance of fifty miles.
Let us take an imaginary journey down the Grand, beginning at its sources, and see the changes that have taken place in the last century and the reasons why the Grand sends one thousand times as much water downstream in flood-time as it does in mid-August.
Interference with Nature
THE HIGH plateau on which the Grand River rises is unique in Southwestern Ontario. Stretching some thirty-five miles from north to south, it is almost flat.
Dundalk, at its upper edge, is the highest post office in Ontario, 1,706 feet above sea level. Around the margins of the plateau, the land falls away rapidly in deep valleys between gravel hills. In these valleys rise many of the rivers of Ontario—the Beaver River flowing toward the north with its famous falls and jxnver development at Eugenia; the Noisy, the Mad and the Pine Rivers going eastward; the Credit flowing to Lake Ontario near Toronto; the various branches of the Saugeen, with its cold water and brook trout; and the Maitland River, which, like the Saugeen, finally reaches Lake Huron. They run out from the high land like the spokes of a wheel.
All these rivers which rise on the edges of the tableland and run away from it are still fairly lively streams. The Grand River alone flows through the plateau, draining it. Once the river was fed by springs and swelled by the water from numerous tamarack and cedar swamps. Now the springs are all dry, and most of the swamps have been deliberately burned over and cleared away. The black soil was amazingly rich for the first few years and the land was in great demand some seventy-five years ago, but its richness is gone. The light topsoil now varies from four to eighteen inches in thickness, with a heavy clay subsoil, impervious to moisture. Water lies in flat places on that land for weeks in springtime.
In order to till that soil, it became necessary to drain the
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water off by large surface ditches. The first of these was dug about 1885, and almost every year since has seen more mileage added to the large open drains in East and West Luther, Amaranth and Melancthon townships, and the northern parts of East and West Garafraxa townships. In an area of 360 square miles, there are over 225 miles of large drainage ditches, and at least as many more small feeder ditches. It is said that no other area in the world is more thoroughly covered with ditches, except irrigated ground.
It is on this high tableland that the Grand River floods start. The water is carried rapidly to the river by the drains as soon as the deep snows melt and the warm spring rains begin to fall. From that high altitude the waters rush down with a fall of eleven feet per mile, often through narrow channels between high banks of rock. Since 1890 the floods have gradually grown in volume, yet even in this year, 1936, new drains are being pushed into the great peat bog in Luther township.
In the southern part of the tableland, the river drops down into a valley that grows deeper near Grand Valley and Waldemar, until the hills are 150 feet high. At Waldemar, Belwood and Glen Lamond there were mill dams in pioneer days, furnishing power for sawmills, grist mills and other local industries, all of which are gone now. Waldemar and Belwood stopjxxl growing when their industries disappeared. Glen Lamond is but a memory; it is about forty years since an early Hood took away its bridge and dam, and completely destroyed the stone mill, rashly built in the bed of the stream.
Fergus and Elora were founded more than 100 years ago by men who saw the Little Falls and the Big Falls on the Grand and built their industries beside these adequate sources of cheap jxnver. The Scots who built Fergus also erected a distillery beside a crystal-pure creek, whose source was a clear, bubbling spring of green water, eight feet in diameter. Brook trout were abundant in the Grand. The land around these villages sold quickly, for it was well watered by streams. The first mill at Elora was built in 1817, in the bed of the stream, with the famous Elora Rocks towering sixty feet above its foundation. Every spring flood of recent years has risen higher than the place where the roof of the old mill used to be.
Elora and Fergus suffer little from spring floods now. The banks are high walls of limestone rock. The early stone mills, whose walls jutted into the channel of the Grand, have all been carried away by the ice. The early bridges went at the same time, and they have been replaced by higher and wider structures.
Well and Sewage Problems
DUT FERGUS feels the scarcity of water in summer. The first waterworks system, started twenty-two years ago, was supplied from artesian wells that overflowed into a reservoir. When they ceased to flow, pumps were put in the wells; then deeper pumps, till the old wells went dry and larger ones were drilled, with rotary pumps now sucking out the water from farther down in the porous limestone.
A few years ago, Fergus installed sewers as an unemployment relief work. The sewage runs through large septic tanks into the river, and the mixture is purified by the oxygen in the water as it flows over three miles of rapids. But this year, the river ceased flowing entirely in the hottest weather.
Kitchener is the first large city reached on the journey downstream. Its population is over 30,000. Kitchener’s drinking water comes from wells, supplied by deep seepage from the river. There is sufficient water, but when some of the new wells were used for the first time last summer, farm wells, close to Kitchener dried up within a day or two. The deeper the wells, the larger the area round about from which they draw the water out of the soil.
Kitchener has no flood problem, because the city is on a high bank, well away from the river, but low water bothers this industrial city. It has the finest sewage disposal plant in the valley, costing approximately half a million dollars, but still the neighbors complain. A green scum covers the brown water at Doon and Blair, while near-by Preston complains of the odors from the river when the wind is in the west. The stream carries this scum through Galt, where it clings to the rocky river bed and the piers of the three bridges.
The reason is simple enough. Efficient though the Kitchener disix)sal plant near Doon may be, it was dumping fifteen cubic feet of sewage effluent ix>r second into a river that was flowing at a rate of twentythree c.f.s. in August. But that is not all. That twenty-three cubic feet per second was not pure water. A few miles upstream, VVaterkx) had piped its sewage through Bridgeport into the Grand River, and a large industry had further contaminated (lie stream.
The Grand at this point is not a river in summer; it is an open sewer. Yet this is the stream that Homer Watson painted! At Doon is the millpond depicted in his picture of “The Flood Gate” in the National Gallery at Ottawa, and the Grand is the stream seen between the tree trunks in “Evening After Rain” in the Toronto Art Gallery. Along this river, near by, Carl Ahrens and F. S. Challener and other artists found much of their inspiration.
Just below Blair, the Speed River empties into the Grand. It carries in its water the effluent of sewage disposal plants at Guelph and Preston, along with the waste matter from many industries in these municipalities and at Hespeler. In the spring, the Speed helps to swell the flood waters of the Grand just before they reach Galt.
Galt is another city which owes its location to the water power on the Grand, but the city has grown greatly since Messrs. Dickson and Shade built mills beside the river. The river itself has changed almost as much. Water power is no longer important, but when the people of Galt think of the Grand, they recall the disastrous floods which have marked the passage of the ice through Galt many times in the past half-century, for Galt
suffers more than any other city when the Grand goes on its annual rampage. Twice, the loss has been estimated at $100,000. The last time the flood record was broken was in 1929, when about 30,000 cubic feet a second roared through the narrow channel below the dam at Galt, ran over retaining walls and dykes, flooded houses three blocks away from the stream, and put two of the main business streets under water. It is little comfort to know that every expert assures Galt that the worst is yet to come—that some spring, temperature and rainfall will conspire together to show Galt such a flood as that city has never experienced.
"piNALLY, let us look at Brantford, another city of over 30,000 people, whose problems are perhaps the most serious of all. Brantford has spent $450,000 on a system of dykes and levees to keep out the floods in spring. Four or five months after the ice has gone, Brantford may be drinking the whole flow of the Grand River —the same water into which Fergus, Waterloo, Kitchener, Guelph, Preston, Galt and Paris have dumped their sewage, either treated or raw.
The system of levees in Brantford is more extensive than any other to be found in Ontario. It begins at Wilkes’ dam and stretches along the left bank of the stream for several miles, almost the full length of the city. The earth levee on the right bank is not so long but is more spectacular. A person driving along the road on top of the 12-foot embankment is apt to wonder what will happen to parks, houses and factories if the water ever does go over the top.
Brantford municipal officials have reason to worry about the water supply when floods are high. The water from the river is doubly filtered and then chlorinated, but at flood time the river is brown with the earth carried off the thawing fields of the townships, and polluted with sewage that has not had time to become purified in the rushing, dirty water. There is danger of epidemics such as more than one city in the United States suffered last March and April.
In August each year, Brantford’s prob-
lem is different. There is always a chance that the total flow of the river may not be sufficient to supply the city with water. There is no surplus to take care of further growth. Textile and other industries, which need plenty of water, cannot locate there.
These are the problems that have brought the Grand River municipalities together at last to seek a common remedy. They have too much water in spring. Floods destroy property and sometimes lives. Flood protection grows more costly year by year. In summer, there is a scarcity of water to drink or to use on gardens. Livestock must be driven to distant sources of water. Industries cannot expand. Fishing in the Grand has become a memory ; trout and bass have been replaced by carp, a scavenger fish. There is no longer water power for year-round use. Sewage disposal plants cannot operate efficiently without water.
nPI IESE problems have been studied for -*• years by residents along the Grand. The causes and results of floods and droughts are known. It is obviously impossible to restore all the swamps and other storage basins which nature provided to feed the Grand River. The process of reforesting over 200 square miles would be too expensive and it would take several generations for cedars and tamaracks to grow sufficiently to bring back swamp conditions. Reforestation in selected locations will undoubtedly be undertaken, but only as a partial remedy.
The problem of water conservation has been discussed along the Grand since 1912, two of the pioneers being W. H. Breithaupt, of Kitchener, and the late J. P. Jaffray, of Galt. Little progress was made until 1929, when the Grand River Valley Board of Trade adopted the scheme. Under the leadership of Gordon Cockshutt, of Brantford, much progress was made, and in 1932 the Ontario Government commissioned L. V. Rorke, Surveyor-General of Ontario, and T. H. Hogg, Chief Hydraulic Engineer of the Ontario HydroElectric Power Commission, to investigate the problem. James Mackintosh, an engineer of the Hydro Commission, did the actual field work, and submitted a comprehensive report which is the basis of present plans. This report recommended the building of large storage dams, making four artificial lakes on the Grand and its tributaries, to impound the flood waters in the spring, so that the stored water could be released gradually all summer, to provide a steady, controlled flow which would be approximately the same as the summer flow of a century ago.
Preparations are now being made to begin the construction of the first of these dams, eleven miles upstream from Fergus. The dam will be a concrete and earth structure, about fifty-five feet in height and 900 feet in length. This would make a lake four miles long and half a mile wide, with an area of 600 acres and an average depth of twenty-five feet, altering the geography of Ontario by adding an inland lake at an altitude of over 1,400 feet.
The cost of this project will be about $675,000. The plan has already been approved by the National Employment Commission at Ottawa as a necessary public work and one that will conserve the natural resources of the country. The details of the financing and the distribution of costs are now being worked out by a committee composed of representatives of the Ontario Government, mayors of municipalities, and members of the Grand River Conservation Commission. If these details can be satisfactorily arranged, the construction work will begin next spring.
This will be Ontario’s first experiment in water conservation on a large scale. If it is successful, it will not only bring new life to the valley of the Grand River, but will bring fresh hope to residents along other dwindling streams in Ontario.