Winnipeg Water Supplies

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As a means of celebrating the role of engineering and geoscience over the 90 year history of APEGM, the Heritage Committee is writing a series of articles that link water to the economic and social development of the province. The first article ‘Liquid Assets’ was published in the March 2010 issue of the Keystone and described the relationship between commerce and water before the Association was formed. This article focuses on water as it relates to health and welfare within the City of Winnipeg. Both articles show the connection between key engineering works with these important aspects of our lives. It goes without saying that a safe clean and abundant water supply is essential to public health and the growth of any city. The development of the City of Winnipeg’s water supply is an interesting success story that continues to sparkle 90 years after it was commissioned. The slow and meandering beginning was ultimately championed by a civil engineer turned politician. Highlights of that story are chronicled below. A subsequent article will describe some of the engineering firsts for the water supplies in other areas of the Province.

Winnipeg's Water Supply History

The Early Years to 1913

In the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, Winnipeg’s water system was not adequate. Initially, “watermen” using oxcarts hauled untreated water from the Red and Assiniboine Rivers and delivered it by barrel.

The first water system began in 1882 when a private company, Winnipeg Water Works Co., drew water from the Assiniboine River and distributed the water by pipes to homes and businesses in the city core. The Company’s intake and pumping facilities were on the north bank of the Assiniboine River near the present day Maryland bridge. The water was inferior quality and the supply was not adequate.

The water was bad everywhere in Winnipeg. It smelled! It was foul-tasting, discoloured and left rusty stains and dangerous to public health. Large sections of the city and the surrounding municipalities had no clean running water. In addition, fire protection for the mainly wood buildings was inadequate resulting in unacceptable loss of life and property in addition to high insurance costs. Winnipeg could not sustain development without an improved water supply.

In 1899, the City of Winnipeg purchased the water supply for $237,000 - nearly $4.7 million in today's dollars and created a public water utility. The city began to use artesian wells rather than river water. Artesian Well No. 1 began flowing into the system in 1900. However, a serious fire in 1904 forced the City to pump Assiniboine River water into the mains, contaminating the system and ultimately resulting in the 1904 typhoid epidemic.

In 1904, Winnipeg had the highest rate of typhoid deaths on the continent. Between 1904 and 1906, over 4,000 Winnipeggers contracted typhoid, and 377 of them died.

Water Supply Studies

Winnipeg experienced an economic boom during the 1890’s through the 1920’s. The population rose from about 25,000 in 1891 - to 50,000 in 1901 - to 156,000 in 1911 - to more than 200,000 by 1921. In the early 1900’s immigrants arrived from Great Britain, Poland, Germany, Russia and Scandinavia expecting to find a prosperous city. There were many signs of growth including the first sky scraper in Western Canada (Union Bank Tower) which was built in 1903, a giant Eaton’s store (1905) to provide many consumer goods and a new Grain Exchange building was opened at Portage and Main in 1906 as part of the growing agricultural business as well as the construction of the Pinawa Hydro Electric Generating Station which would bring plenty of cheaper electricity to the city in 1906. At the time, there were more than 60 hotels along Main Street between the CPR and CNR stations. Water was identified early by the city leaders to be one of the keys to development.

In 1902 the city hired Rudoph Hering, a consulting engineer from New York, who recommended an additional artesian well. In 1905 a new 10 million litres per day well was dug (do we know where) but with the rapid population growth noted above the supply was still inadequate and the quality was not suitable for sustained growth. Not only was water quality an issue but there was a growing need to deal with water quantity concerns to improve fire fighting purposes. In 1908 the James Avenue Pumping Station was built along side of the Red River near the Alexander Docks to provide fire fighting support for the businesses in the ‘Exchange District” but water quality was still a problem. (Look for more details in a subsequent article).

In 1907 a Board of Consulting Engineers consisting of James H. Fuertes (New York), R. S. Lea, J. E. Schwitzer, and George C. Whipple were appointed by the City’s Water Supply Commission to advise fully as to the selection of a permanent and adequate system of supply for sustained growth. On August 29, 1909 the Board recommended the source be the Winnipeg River. (we could show the map with the alternatives)

Time moved on and nothing was done in terms of water supply and by 1911, Winnipeg’s population was 156,000 and had tripled from the previous decade. To assure its future, Winnipeg needed an abundant supply of fresh, safe, water. A search was started that led to a visionary proposal. Professor Charles S. Slichter offered three options:- Drill new water wells north of the City- Build a pipeline to the Winnipeg River- Build an aqueduct to Shoal Lake, a “daring” and “visionary” approach to tap a source “of exceptional softness and purity”, in a lake of “clean Laurentian granite”

The Shoal Lake Aqueduct

Thomas Russ Deacon was born in Perth, Ontario January 3, 1865. He earned a degree in civil engineering in 1891and became superintendent for the construction of the North Bay waterworks in Ontario. He moved to Winnipeg in 1902 and partnered with H. B. Lyall in founding Manitoba Bridge and Iron Works (another pre-association engineer in Manitoba). Deacon was appointed to the Water Supply Commission in 1906 and campaigned vigorously for a better water supply and specifically for the Shoal Lake aqueduct. In 1912 Deacon was elected mayor on a platform of “Vote for Deacon and a real supply of water”.

On April 7, 1913, a new Board of Consulting Engineers was appointed consisting of Rudolph Hering and James H. Fuertes from New York, and Frederic P. Stearns from Boston, ‘all eminent water supply engineers’. They were to report on the best means of supplying water from Shoal Lake, together with an estimate of cost and general plan of work. The report was received August 20, 1913 and approved by Council. A money By-law for $13,500,000 was submitted to a vote and the aqueduct won by a landslide. In spite of the costs, Winnipeggers were looking to the future and they wanted “water of good quality and lots of it”.

Mayor Deacon declared “We have just undertaken – I was elected for that purpose - the bringing in….a sufficient water supply of pure soft water to supply a city of one million inhabitants, which we hope to have there within the next twenty years”. In January 1914 the International Joint Commission authorized the Greater Winnipeg Water District to draw 455 million litres per day (100 million gallons) of water from Shoal Lake/Lake of the Woods. As noted later, Winnipeg has not yet achieved the population predicted, and with the addition of storage at Deacon, MB, nor has the capacity of the aqueduct been attained.

The chief engineer for the project was W. G. Chace P. Eng. Mr. Chace later became President of the Association of Professional Engineers in 1928.

The route to Shoal Lake was 137 km through wilderness with no road access.

(Insert Map). The Greater Winnipeg Water District railway was built to carry workers, equipment, gravel and cement. Camps were set up along the way to house workers and stockpile materials.

For the first 129 kilometers a design patterned after ancient stone/masonry engineering was developed – an un-reinforced dish-shaped concrete floor covered with a parabolic-shaped shell. This is seen in the picture of Mr. Chace. Sections were poured in forms, coupled with copper expansion joints and manholes were installed every 1,524 m. Shoal Lake is 92 m higher than Winnipeg as shown by the profile below so the water flows by gravity. Twenty seven km from Winnipeg the aqueduct changes to a circular 2,400 mm pipe and 6 km west of Deacon, Manitoba the diameter changes to 1,520 mm. This is the site of the present day Deacon open reservoir and recently constructed water treatment plant (see reference).

Construction of the aqueduct started May 15, 1915, and Shoal Lake water first flowed from Winnipeg taps on April 6, 1919. The aqueduct was officially opened by his Royal Highness, Edward, Prince of Wales on September 9, 1919. The total cost was $17 million.

Winnipeg’s Water Today

Today, the water from the Shoal Lake source is conveyed by a complex system of aqueduct, storage and treatment at Deacon, and three major covered reservoirs and pumping facilities that deliver water to 170,000 residential and commercial customers through a vast network of feeder mains and water mains. Winnipeg is still licensed to take up to 455 million litres of water per day from the lake that continues to be only accessible by rail or boat.

Lift pumps have been installed at the intake to fill the aqueduct when lake levels are low. The Deacon reservoir was built in 1972 and expanded twice, the most recent in 1997. It currently stores 8,400m litres (1,850m gallons) the equivalent of a 28 day supply for the City of Winnipeg. It is used to supplement peak summer demands and to allow brief shutdowns for the Shoal Lake Aqueduct for repairs.Historically, water quality was so high that the water was not treated except for the addition of chlorine for disinfectant and flouride to assist with resisting tooth decay. However, physical and aesthetic parameters of taste, odour, and turbidity were marginal when compared to current water quality guidelines, and concentrations of disinfection by-products and lead sometimes exceeded guidelines. Bacteriological tests meet the Manitoba criteria.

With the trend toward more stringent water quality guidelines and a desire to minimize public health risks, the most recent technology water treatment plant has been constructed at Deacon and began operation in late 2009. The main focus of the treatment technologies is on waterborne protozoa such as giardia and cryptosporidium that are difficult to detect and not easily destroyed by conventional disinfection. Secondly, lower amounts of disinfection byproducts which have been identified as potential carcinogens will now be attainable with the new technology. The Winnipeg Water and Waste Department provided an insert with the March, 2010 water and sewer bill “Announcing our best tap water ever! Winnipeg’s new water treatment plant started up on December 9, 2009. The treatment facility is 12,000 sq. m in size (about the footprint of the MTS Centre). The water passes through six treatment stages, including filtration, ozonation, and two types of disinfection.”

The new system is expected to supply the amount of water need for the foreseeable future even given that residential demand is projected to increase until about 2020 due in large part to reduction in large consumers (commercial?) demand and the implementation of water conservation programs. Currently water consumption is made up of residential 54%, commercial 18%, industrial 10.4% and unaccounted 17.7% (fire fighting, flushing, street cleaning, leakage etc.). The average water consumption is 400 litres per person per day compared to 480 litres per person per day before the multi-faceted Water Conservation Program began. The toilet continues to be the largest indoor water use at 32%, and accordingly has the largest potential for water savings, hence the current rebate program to encourage installation of dual flush toilets. Industrial use has also declined due to the loss of large users, notably packing plants and refineries. Increased water rates have also contributed to decreased usage.

Clearly the citizens’ health has been protected with a safe, clean water supply for many years to come.

In a future article we will focus on the challenges of water supply development outside of Winnipeg. The Heritage Committee wants to hear from you on this and any other engineering or geoscience story.