Ontario’s Flood Trouble
When watersheds dwindle, spring torrents can cause autumn crop failures
OUR HOUSE was half a mile from the river and we never thought the water would come near it,” said the young man from London, Ontario. “My wife and I drove down beside the Thames to watch the muddy water coming up around some of the houses close to the bank. Then the river came over the top of the embankment, and we had to hurry away or be caught by the flood.
“When we reached home, the water was ten inches deep in our driveway. We hadn’t time to gather up anything.
We laid our new radio on top of the chesterfield, hoping the water wouldn’t rise that high. The radio was the only piece of furniture that wasn’t damaged. The chesterfield floated up to the ceiling, but the radio didn’t fall off; it never even got wet. When we lifted the chesterfield, it fell to pieces. So did the dining-room table. We had to smash open the dresser drawers with an axe, to take out the clothing before it mildewed. The mud had soaked into everything.
"One of our neighbors came back to his house, three days later. When he opened the front door, the baby’s rattle floated out. The canary was still singing. The w’ater rose almost to the ceiling, but the cage must have floated.
“Across the street, the brick wall fell out of the side of the house and you can see the woman’s washing hanging on a line in the kitchen, but it’s chocolate colored now. The room is full of lumber and rubbish that floated in after the furniture went out.”
ONTARIO IS usually described as a province where nature seldom loses her temper. Tornadoes, earthquakes, flood and drought have visited other parts of the continent, but the land north of the Great Lakes was supposed to be immune from such extremes. In recent years, however, floods have shown a tendency to increase in violence. Following the floods, came the droughts of the past two summers— in a land where crop failures had been almost unknown. These two scourges are closely related. To be conquered, they must be attacked together.
The floods in April, 1937, at London, Ingersoll. Beachville, St. Mary's, Stratford, Chatham, and a dozen other towns, brought the latest warning to the people of Ontario that they must take notice. If they do not. freshets will continue to become worse each time weather conditions are propitious, until the province will have a steady succession of floods and droughts. Rainfall that runs to the lakes in spring helps neither wells nor crops in dry summers.
The pioneers of Western Ontario found water wherever they dug a shallow well. It bubbled up in natural springs. Countless swamps made road-building difficult. Water power was abundant, and was responsible for the situation of every inland village of a hundred years ago.
The first settlers often thought of trees as natural enemies to be destroyed so that fields could be cleared, but water was generally useful and farms with running streams brought the highest price. As the trees disappeared, the water in the soil began to sink lower. Springs dried up: wells were drilled in the rock; waterpower became uncertain and was replaced by steam, later by electricity.
Drought Brings Awakening
'T'HESE WARNINGS were not heeded by the people of a A generation ago, but the last few years have brought an awakening in Ontario. It began in the cities and towns. Certain centres of population suffered because of a lack of drinking water and a safe place to dump their sewage effluent. Floods did most damage where people were clustered together too close to the banks of the streams. Within the last two years the farmers have begun to
discuss conservation. This spring a wave of enthusiasm for tree planting swept over the southern counties. The rural portions of Southern Ontario have been completely organized within recent months, and farmers and conservationists are discussing ways of saving the water that comes down as rain, prevention of floods, and methods of planting trees to the best advantage.
It was not the floods but the drought of 1936 which aroused the farmers. Their crops and livestock suffered. They drove their cattle miles to find water after their wells went dry; but the water table sank lower in the soil, and crops dried up for lack of moisture, above ground and below.
Years before that, the urban dwellers along some Ontario rivers had been attacking the flood problem. Along the Grand River, for instance, floods have been common for the past forty years. Local precautions such as levees, river walls, higher and wider bridges, altered courses, and removal of obstructions in the beds of the streams, have been carried to the limit. Every year, as the population grows, more water is needed for drinking and sanitary purposes, while stream flow has dwindled in the summer months.
Now farm and city dwellers are of one mind. They are expressing the same thought. “Something must be done.” They are seeking the reason why nature has suddenly become so unfriendly, and because they feel helpless to combat these disasters, are calling on their governments to take action.
Anyone attending the average meeting to discuss flood control and water conservation will learn that there is a great variety of opinion regarding causes and remedies. But there is one prevalent belief, which has become almost a national superstition—that the planting of a few thousand trees in each county will restore the balance. Sometimes the claim is made that tree planting will change our climate and restore pioneer conditions, with a plentiful, year-round water supply.
Rural and Urban Co-operation
TT CAN’T be done that easily.
Members of the Forestry Branch, with years of practical experience, make no such claims. The Ontario Forestry Department has distributed millions of young trees, and has done much to encourage the planting of wood lots and windbreaks. There have been real benefits for the farmers who have planted these trees, but the new growth has had little effect in restoring the lost ground water or preventing floods and droughts. The places where farmers want to plant trees are not the places where a water conservation expert would put them.
If the tree-planting program, now being enthusiastically adopted by the counties of Southern Ontario, will not stop the floods along the larger inland rivers, is there no help for the residents of the cities and towns along the banks? Must the buildings close to these streams be moved away? How would that be possible when thousands of persons live in the danger zone in such cities as Galt, Brantford and
Continued on page 45
Ontario*s Flood Trouble
Continued from page 19
Those who have studied the flood and drought problem in Ontario are sure of two things.
First, that part of the water which comes down as rain in the various drainage areas, can be held on the land instead of running into the rivers within a few hours after it reaches the ground. If that can be done, floods lose their terror. If half the water can be held in the woods, fields and swamps for a week, the flood peak will be kept below the danger point. Then, and only then, dikes and other protective works will solve the problem at places where the banks are low in cities and towns.
Second, that water, held in the soil, will sink down into the earth to provide a surplus for the dry months, and bring back fresh life to springs and artesian wells.
The answer is as simple as that, but tire
details must be worked out over a period of years. There must be co-operation between cities and country. No one municipality has either the power or the financial strength to undertake the restoration of a watershed; though, in some river basins, one large city might take the leadership, as did Dayton, Ohio, some years ago, after a disastrous flood on the Miami River.
Ontario has flood problems along several rivers. The Grand, the Thames, and the short streams that flow into Lake Ontario provide the immediate problems.
Of these, the Grand is undoubtedly the worst. It is the longest river of them all, runs through a thickly populated district, and has a flood history which dates back fifty years or more, due in part to the excessive drainage in the high plateau
I where it rises. The same troubles which i liave risen lately along the Thames were : familiar along the Grand as early as 1898 I and 1902.
The chief cause of the Thames disaster in April was heavy rainfall at a time when the soil of the valley was already saturated ! and the surface eroded after a mild, wet : winter. Four or five inches of rain fell in as I many April days on cultivated fields which ! were covered with a thin film of wet silt that shed water like a tin roof. That combination of conditions may not be found along the Thames again for a generation, but no one can be sure that it will not come again in ten years, or five, or next year. The more pronounced erosion becomes over the watershed, the more rapidly the floods will rise when heavy rains come at that season.
The Grand River is in a more dangerous condition. Every heavy rain in winter or early spring* sends the water level up quickly, because the water pours off the high tableland through a network of drains, such as is found nowhere else in Canada. Erosion plays only an occasional part.
The municipalities realize that the work is too great for them to undertake alone, even if they had the statutory power. The cities and larger towns along the Grand River have appealed to the Ontario Government. Premier Mitchell F. Hepburn declares he is “absolutely sold on the idea.” He is in favor of building one or two large dams on the Grand River and its chief tributary, the Conestoga, and he suggests that the work be done as quickly as possible.
Preserve the Swamps
THE SUCCESSFUL history of the Hydro-Electric Power Commission and the Niagara Falls Parks Commission suggests that the work of flood control in Ontario should be handed over to a permanent commission. Such a commission must have an income, with power to levy rates from the municipalities which benefit, and to receive grants from the Ontario and Dominion Governments.
The works which must he undertaken for the prevention of floods will vary widely on different rivers, but a study of the Grand River during the lifetime of the writer of this article suggests the following program.
The first move, and the most important of all, must be the preservation of swamps, ponds, small lakes and peat marshes. These are the water storage basins provided by nature in the highlands where most rivers rise. Their destruction has probably done more damage to Ontario farm lands than any other single factor, and has added few acres of valuable land at the higher altitudes.
In order to facilitate the preservation of the remaining storage areas, any commission would need some control over the digging of large surface drains and the intentional burning of swamps near the sources of rivers. It should be consulted about the plans of new bridges, or any other structure which might impede the flow of water or cause the formation of ice jams.
Since it takes a generation to restore swamp conditions and centuries to build up a peat bog, artificial reservoirs must be made on some streams. These will range from the $600,000 storage dams planned for the Grand River to the small dams which will make a pond in a hollow on some farm. The farm ponds will do much to prevent water famines in the rural areas, and obviate the necessity of driving cattle for miles to the nearest river; but the dams on the Grand will make two storage reservoirs, each about four miles long and fifty feet deep. They will give absolute control of floods for fifty miles downstream, and will provide a regulated flew for drinking water and sewage disposal in July and August.
Reforestation must be undertaken, and it would seem that certain experiments
should be tried. Nothing holds back the force of an ice jam, or slows down its speed, like a flood plain covered with sturdy cedars. Fledges of evergreens have held back ice which would have crushed houses. Cedars help to keep the ground moist, particularly along a river bank; willows will preserve the banks of small streams from erosion.
There are isolated instances in Ontario where local water supplies have been increased or restored by reforestation at the proper time and place. The village of Beeton provides an example. It is situated in a hilly district in Central Ontario, and has had a waterworks system for about forty years. The water comes from natural springs on a hillside and the pressure is supplied by gravity. About twenty-five years ago, the owner of the land on the hillside began to cut the trees. Within a few years, the water supply began to dwindle. One farsighted member of the village council insisted that the municipality should buy the farm and reforest the hillside. He kept up the fight until he won his point, and now, after the councillor is dead, Beeton reaps the benefit.
Last year, when almost every waterworks system in Ontario was overtaxed, there were no restrictions on the use of water in Beeton. This would seem to prove that there is a very definite relationship between wooded hillsides and springs of water; but such remedies cannot be extended to large areas of the province, where some counties now have eighty-five or ninety per cent of the land cleared.
Premier Hepburn, of Ontario, has had a similar experience on his own large farm in Elgin, but he uses small storage basins instead of trees to secure results. He has drained the swamps on his land, to provide the rich black soil in which onions grow to perfection. Tile underdrains have been put under his fields to increase the fertility of the soil and to allow the use of heavier tractors. As a result, his wells dried up, and it became necessary to haul water for his livestock from the lake, fifteen miles away. He overcame the difficulty by building two .small dams which held the water in storage reservoirs, thus supplying places for the cattle to quench their thirst and eventually putting water back in the well on the farm.
How to Prevent Erosion
THE DANGER of erosion was demonstrated during the floods on the Thames in April, and during several of the five or six floods on the Grand within the last six months. Erosion of the soil is one of the most serious problems in the Southern United States, but Ontario has had a certain immunity because fields are usually frozen when winter and early spring rains bring the freshets. The winter of 1936-37 was mild. The surface of the ground thawed out during the unseasonable rains. As a result, thousands of tons of soil washed off the hillsides into the creeks, ditches and rivers.
Every drop of that chocolate-colored flood which overwhelmed West London carried particles of soil from the fields of Oxford, Perth and Middlesex. The silt which clung, a quarter of an inch thick, to the walls of houses beside the Grand a month earlier, came from sloping fields in Duff erin and Wellington. Streams near F'ergus were completely choked with silt. Farmers’ fields were washed in deep furrows, down to the gravel subsoil.
Erosion can he controlled if taken in time. The problem is a new one in many parts of Ontario. Some farmers are not yet aware of what is happening to their fields, but they should be warned of the danger before it is too late. By plowing along the contours of the hills, or by leaving strips of grass, clover or alfalfa to slacken the speed of the water rushing downhill, they can hold their soil. Very steep hills can be reforested. Cedar trees, shrubbery or small retarding dams will prevent furrows
and gullies from becoming deep ravines within a few seasons. Control methods might be placed under the direction of the same commission to watch over the conservation of water and the prevention of floods, as in the case of the Tennessee Valley Authority in the United States.
The building of dikes, levees and river walls, and the straightening of channels, have already been undertaken by some municipalities. Brantford, for instance, has spent nearly half a million dollars in public works to keep the water away from low-lying parts of the city. Dikes are expensive to build, and the costs rise rapidly as the embankments are built higher. Their weakness was shown at
London. When the water goes over the top, the dike does more harm than good. It holds the water on tire low land after the river level has fallen. It seems probable that those cities which are considering the building of higher dikes would be better off if they spent the same amount of money on flood works nearer the sources of the rivers.
The next twelve months may see the first great experiment in planned water conservation in Ontario. Those who have studied the problem for years are convinced that action cannot be taken a day too soon if flood disasters of the past are not to be followed by more serious catastrophes in the future.