Manitoba History: Pressure to Act: The Shoal Lake Aqueduct and the Greater Winnipeg Water District
by David A. Ennis
In the early 20th century Winnipeg was touted as “the Chicago of the North.” Between 1890 and 1910, the population of Winnipeg proper had grown from 23,000 to 132,000, and by 1913 the population of the area that became known as the Greater Winnipeg Water District (GWWD) stood at 215,000. (Canadian Public Works Association—hereafter CPWA 2000, p. ii) It was well known in Winnipeg business and civic circles that the area’s continued development would be linked to the supply of a sufficient volume of safe pure water for domestic and industrial needs. Nevertheless, and despite the city’s location on two rivers both with significant watersheds, providing that supply was a problem. It was only in 1913 that Winnipeg committed to a lasting solution (Artibise 1975, pp. 215–22). Collaborating with its neighbouring municipalities to form the Greater Winnipeg Water District (GWWD), the City decided to invest $13,500,000 to access Shoal Lake, a tributary of the Lake of the Woods watershed some 150 kilometres away and straddling the recently established Manitoba-Ontario border.
Despite Shoal Lake’s being nearly 300 feet (91 metres) higher than Winnipeg, achieving that delivery was not all downhill from there. There were matters of administration, authorizations, design engineering, financing, materials supply, construction, and changed circumstances to be dealt with.
The Winnipeg aqueduct project was implemented more than 90 years ago at a time when Canada was at war and Manitoba was beset with legislative turmoil and social change. Yet, albeit with some enhancements and repair, it continues to provide Winnipeg’s water supply effectively and efficiently. That success is a testimony to the administrative and engineering leadership of the. Water District and its successor the City of Winnipeg Water and Waste Department.
The conveyance of potable water in aqueducts, i.e., delivered primarily by gravity, has been a solution for water supply to cities for thousands of years. The word “aqueduct” has its origin in the Latin “aqua” for water and “ducere” to lead. The basic principles used in the design of the Winnipeg aqueduct were the same as those employed and improved over time by the early aqueduct builders, most notably the Romans. However, the Shoal Lake aqueduct’s physical appearance differs greatly from the massive stone structures in the vicinity of Rome which for many people are synonymous with aqueducts. An aqueduct is a conduit designed to conduct water usually at a gentle gradient. The structures near Rome were simply a means of maintaining the necessary gradient for the operation of the conduit. The GWWD’s aqueduct, with its challenges for designers regarding topography, head, and construction conditions, uses a covered open-channel flow (unpressurized) conduit, generally buried. When it crossed rivers inverted siphons were built into the system.
One of the more well-known North American examples of an aqueduct is the Catskill Aqueduct which is part of a system that brings water to the city of New York. It was constructed a few years before the Winnipeg Aqueduct and the politicians, administrators, and engineers involved with the GWWD benefited from its example.
American engineers had already developed extensive water channelization projects with the completion of the 363-mile-long Erie Canal in 1825, and with the rapid growth of their cities had developed expertise in water supply projects. That expertise had been recognized by Winnipeg politicians. Engineers from the United States had been consulted on the city’s water supply from as early as 1897 when Dr. Rudolf Hering from New York provided a report advising on issues and options for Winnipeg’s water supply. While using Lake of the Woods as a source due to its excellent quality was suggested at a meeting of the Manitoba Historical Society as early as 1884, it did not garner the attention of the civic leaders. Hering’s 1897 report considered only the City’s artesian well system and the option of a pipeline from the Winnipeg River.
Water supply had been an issue in Winnipeg civic politics for many years before the decision to use Shoal Lake. The factors influencing the public discourse on the matter included the quantity available, the security of supply, its quality, the proclivity for the city’s business elite to favour private ownership of utilities, and latterly a health issue. Prior to 1882, water was taken from the City’s rivers and delivered to homes and businesses in barrels carried on horse-drawn conveyances. The first supply and distribution utility was started under a private corporation—the Winnipeg Water Works Company. Its source of supply was the Assiniboine River just downstream from the present day Maryland Bridge. The Company was incorporated by an act of the Manitoba Legislature in 1880 with an exclusive franchise covering the City of Winnipeg. However, soon after it began delivering water, there were issues with the capacity of its infrastructure and the service being provided. After years of legislative manoeuvres, confrontation, and wrangling, the City bought out the corporation and its franchise in 1898 (Artibise 1975, pp. 210–212). In the lead-up to the purchase, City Engineer H. N. Ruttan, who had been hired in 1885, had investigated the use of artesian wells for the city’s supply. After its purchase of the Water Works Company, the City developed an artesian well system, but only to a limited extent. As a result of that limitation, the supply operation from the Assiniboine was kept on standby for use in emergencies.
One such emergency occurred in 1904 when a serious fire broke out and the City was forced to pump Assiniboine River water into its mains. Shortly after that, there was a typhoid fever epidemic. When the infection was attributed to contaminated river water, there was a heightened civic interest in the importance of clean water; and ending the use of Assiniboine River water became a priority. The option chosen was expansion of the artesian well system.
Early Sources and Investigations
While expanding the artesian well system after the typhoid epidemic was an improvement, it was not to be the long-term solution. The certainty of supply and hardness of the water continued to be an issue for the business community. The primary influence was the need to demonstrate an assured supply in amounts sufficient to satisfy the requirements of the fire insurance providers. In the aftermath of the 1904 fire, the industry had imposed “very excessive fire insurance charges, due largely to the fact that the development of the Water Works system had not kept pace with the extraordinary growth of the City” (Ruttan 1909, p. 3).
The next years saw expansion to the system of artesian wells to the northwest of the City. Proximity to those wells was the reason for the present location of the McPhillips reservoir, which was also the beginning of the City’s distribution system. For that reason it was necessary for the Shoal Lake system to connect to that reservoir even though it was located across the City from the aqueduct’s point of entry. By 1908, under the administration and guidance of City Engineer Ruttan, seven wells had been dug. They averaged 18 feet in diameter with depths ranging from 46 to 102 feet (Scott 1938, p. 1875). While the water was quite satisfactory for human consumption, its hardness made it undesirable for laundry. Its hardness was also a major problem for the owners of industrial boilers because the scale build-up caused high maintenance costs. Both were seen as disincentives for new industry to locate in the City. To put the hardness issue in perspective, the total solids in the well water was 1,014 parts per million, whereas the figure for Shoal Lake was 130 parts per million (Scott 1938, p. 1875). It is not that Winnipeg was unfamiliar with water softening. The City had built the first municipal water softening plant in North America in 1901, but as the City grew softening became no longer feasible (Scott 1938, p. 1875). Another underlying factor, probably heightened by the memory of the typhoid epidemic, was concern over the possibility that the draw-down of the water table by the well system could bring water levels below that of the rivers, exposing the system to the hazard of contamination.
The adequacy of the water supply was tackled on two fronts concurrently. In 1906, on the authority of an act of the Manitoba Legislature, the City established a Water Supply Commission to develop an adequate supply (Scott 1938, p. 1876). The other initiative was that, by 1908, a high-pressure pumping station and a fire-fighting distribution system were in operation to service the City’s closely-built business section. The system produced water pressures almost four times greater than the domestic supply. The pumping component of the facility, which became known as the James Avenue pumping station, was located near and drew its water from the Red River. However, it too was not without issues. The limitations on its service area would have had an effect on commercial expansion, and the use of the river water as the source of supply was a detraction. Often, when a fire was over, it was found that merchandise was ruined beyond redemption because of deposited sediments from the water.
Two members of the City’s 1906 Water Supply Commission were James H. Ashdown and Thomas Russ Deacon. Both men later served as mayors of Winnipeg and were also instrumental in the success of the Administration Board of the GWWD in accomplishing the Shoal Lake project. Deacon had lived in the Keewatin–Kenora area of Ontario working in the mining industry, and was aware of the water supply potential of the Lake of the Woods and Shoal Lake. He was a consistent proponent of that area as the source for Winnipeg (Shropshire 1994, p. 3). The 1906 Commission considered a number of sources: included were the Red River, the Winnipeg River, Lake Winnipeg, and Lake Manitoba. In 1907 the Commission received a report from a Board of Consulting Engineers; two were from the USA, including J. H. Fuertes (who later became the consulting engineer for the Shoal Lake aqueduct), and two from Canada. That report recommended developing the City’s supply from the Winnipeg River. Apart from the higher cost of using Shoal Lake, there was also a concern that despite its purity, the water would still require treatment to overcome coloration from the effect of Falcon River that discharged into Indian Bay. The Commission recommended proceeding with the Winnipeg River as the City’s source. However, perhaps fortunately for Manitoba, the City did not act for reasons of finance. Nineteen hundred and seven was a time of world-wide recession, and a substantial financial commitment had already been made to build a City-owned hydro-electric generation facility at Pointe du Bois on the Winnipeg River.
The expansion of the artesian well system had continued, and once the Pointe du Bois development was finished and operating in 1912, the focus on providing an adequate visible supply of soft water resumed. (The water in a source such as a river or a lake is visible to the consumer. However, with the source of an artesian well not being “visible,” confidence in a well’s continuing reliability is not high.) Despite this lack of visibility of artesian systems, the Council, on the recommendation of Engineer Ruttan, decided to expand the City’s supply from artesian sources still farther northwest of Winnipeg in an area known as Poplar Springs. The water from there was much softer than from its other wells in Winnipeg. To pay for the expansion, the Council had called for a vote on a money by-law for 13 September 1912. However, in a separate initiative, it had also asked the recently appointed, and first, Manitoba Public Utilities Commissioner, Judge H. A. Robson, to recommend a secure system of permanent supply. Judge Robson had engaged another American engineer, Professor Charles S. Slichter, to provide an opinion. Slichter was an international authority on water and had provided advice to a number of American cities (Siamandas, p. 2). The professor considered Winnipeg’s projected population growth, its available ground water supply, the earlier reports and the pricing that was used, and made his own analysis of Shoal Lake water. After considering the options, Professor Slichter, in a report dated 6 September 1912, recommended that the City use Shoal Lake as its source. He noted that “a perfect water supply is worth all its costs” and that “I recommend the water supply for Winnipeg be taken from Shoal Lake,” basing this judgement “solely for the reason that it is the very best” (Slichter 1912, p. 1). Judge Robson endorsed Slichter’s recommendation, and in his report of the same date added that,
That suggestion for a scheme became the germ of the idea for the formation of the GWWD. The money by-law on the Poplar Springs project was narrowly defeated a week later.
The Concept and Politics of the Water District
Thomas Deacon became the Mayor of Winnipeg in 1913. A civil engineer and businessman, he was president of Manitoba Bridge & Iron Works. His strong support for Shoal Lake as a water source which began with his 1906 service on the Water Commission had not wavered. In his mayoral campaign, he made a pledge of “providing at once for the people of Winnipeg an ample and permanent supply of pure soft water which will forever remove the menace now hanging over Winnipeg of a water famine.” (Shropshire 1994, p. 3)
The idea of the surrounding municipalities participating with the City of Winnipeg in a Shoal Lake water supply project caught on quickly. That they were able to come together on the issue of water was probably facilitated by the fact that Winnipeg was already providing water to four of those municipalities, and St. Boniface to one. Judge Robson seems to have practiced in the area of municipal law and was later the co-author of text books on the subject. He used that knowledge, together with the concept of an inter-municipal corporation modelled on one that had started in England, to assist the two cities and the municipalities in coming to an arrangement. In January 1913, a series of meetings was held in which Mayor Deacon and the judge played prominent roles. By the end of the month, there was agreement on draft legislation to form a water district.
After the adoption of resolutions by the various municipalities endorsing the proposed legislation, “An Act to incorporate the ‘Greater Winnipeg Water District,’ being Chapter 22 of 3 George V,” was assented to in the Manitoba Legislature on 15 February 1913 (Province of Manitoba, 1913). The areas included in the district were as follows: The City of Winnipeg, The City of St. Boniface, The Town of Transcona, the Rural Municipality of St. Vital, a part of the Rural Municipality of Fort Garry, a part of the Rural Municipality of Assiniboia, and a part of the Rural Municipality of Kildonan. At the time, Kildonan straddled the Red River, but it was changed to become East and West Kildonan in 1914. Even with only parts of some municipalities included in the District, Winnipeg comprised only 26% of its area, but had 87% of the population.
It is noteworthy that, while Winnipeg was guaranteed the Chairmanship, it did not have a majority position on the governing Board and could not dictate. Winnipeg had five members on the Board and the other entities had seven. That position was further diminished with the 1914 amendment that gave representation to both East and West Kildonan.
Some of the more significant features of the Act were as follows:
An important amendment in 1914 essentially provided that the progress of the project could not be delayed by any court action due to a dispute over damages or prices offered in expropriation. That effectively cleared the way for the corporation to quickly decide on its right-of-way for the works.
The three-fifths vote of approval by the eligible Winnipeg voters brought the legislation into force on 1 May 1913, four months after Thomas Deacon became the Mayor. Those residents qualified to vote on money by-laws approved the formation of the GWWD by a margin of 2226 to 369. The population of Winnipeg in 1912 was 166,500, which might seem a low turnout on such an important issue. However, when one considers that, unlike today, to qualify as a voter one had to own property worth at least $500, the turnout seems not to have indicated voter apathy (Artibise 1975, p. 39).
In the interim, the Winnipeg City Council had engaged another board of four consulting engineers in April 1913, all from the US (and once again included James Fuertes), and instructed them on 20 May 1913 to “submit a report on the best means of supplying the Greater Winnipeg Water District with water from Shoal Lake, together with an estimate of cost and general plan of work” (Greater Winnipeg Water District 1918, p 7). Then, with the GWWD official, the first meeting of the Administration Board took place on 30 July 1913. The most significant decision taken was to begin the process of application to the International Joint Commission to allow the District to take water from Shoal Lake (GWWD minutes, July 13, 1913).
The Board of Consulting Engineer’s report was delivered on 20 August 1913 and, on 6 September 1913, it was quickly adopted by the Administration Board of the GWWD, which at the same time, passed a by-law to create a debt of $13,500,000. (GWWD minutes, 6 September 1913) Once again, the GWWD Act required that the debt be approved by the Winnipeg voters through a money by-law. That vote occurred on 1 October 1913, with 97% in favour (GWWD 1918, p.7). To put that decision in perspective, and using housing prices as a metric, the author estimates that it would be the equivalent of at least a $400,000,000 decision for a 2011 voter.
The Administration Board began its operations with the hiring of S. H. Reynolds, a civil engineer from Vancouver, as the Chief and only Commissioner, and W. G. Chace as its Chief Engineer. Mr. Reynolds had been the Assistant City Engineer in Winnipeg under H. N. Ruttan from 1902 until 1907. Mr. Chace, from Ontario, had been previously engaged by the City of Winnipeg as a senior engineer on the construction of the recently completed Pointe du Bois hydro-generation project.
One of the most consistent issues before the Administration Board was the matter of cash flow to finance the work. Consideration of the project’s credit requirements had not been an issue. But with the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914, just as construction expenditures in the range of $7,600,000 were being committed, arranging credit became much more difficult. In that regard it is noteworthy that, in its early years, the Administration Board appointed J. H. Ashdown, who had steered Winnipeg out of its indebtedness following the 1907 recession, as its honorary treasurer.
As it moved toward the awarding of contracts for the construction of what in today’s terms would be considered a megaproject, the Administration Board understandably had policy issues to resolve. What is impressive about the GWWD Board is that it appears to have conducted its affairs effectively, and with very little controversy despite the tensions that could easily have evolved between neighbouring civic entities.
Indian Bay is the area of Shoal Lake where the aqueduct inlet is located. The Falcon River discharges into Indian Bay immediately south of where the water for the aqueduct is withdrawn. The Falcon River is the outlet of Falcon Lake, which is some 10 kilometres to the northwest and also drains much of the muskeg area in between.
Among the earlier matters that the Administration Board had to deal with was obtaining permission to take its water from Shoal Lake. As the lake is connected with, and is part of the Lake of the Woods watershed, a trans-boundary water system, approval was required from the International Joint Commission (IJC) which administered the 1909 Boundary Waters Treaty between the United States and Canada.
On the trans-provincial aspect there was the matter that under the terms of Manitoba’s entry into the Canadian Confederation, the province did not, in 1913, own the rights to the natural resources in its territory. However, Ontario did have ownership so permission to take water was also required from both those governments. The consent of the Government of Canada was given in June 1913, soon after the GWWD’s act came into effect (Water and Waste Department nd, Box 1-I, Doc 7). Ontario’s consent was provided by way of an Order in Council on 2 October 1913. The Ontario Order was subject to terms and stipulations. One stipulation stated that the GWWD would be required either to remedy or pay damages should the removal of the water appreciably reduce the amount of hydro-electric power that the Town of Kenora could generate with its facilities at the outlet of Lake of the Woods (Water and Waste Department nd, Box 1-I, Doc 19).
An application to the IJC was subject to the approval of the Government of Canada and could be transmitted to the Commission only by that government. Conveniently, the cabinet minister at the time responsible for such transmission, Robert Rogers, the Minister of Public Works, was from Winnipeg. His letter of transmittal to the IJC was dated 25 August 1913, and the Commission began its hearing on 13 January 1914 (IJC 1914, pp. 5, 11). The GWWD’s application requested permission to draw up to 85,000,000 imperial gallons per day (386,400,000 litres per day). Not unexpectedly, given the stipulation in the Ontario Order in Council, the Town of Kenora was represented by legal counsel. Seven persons gave testimony on the expected effect on the water level. Five of them, including James H. Fuertes, were engineers. There was agreement among the witnesses that if a year’s supply of water at 85,000,000 gallons per day (386,400,000 litres per day) were to be removed from the Lake of the Woods-Shoal Lake system in a single day, the water level would be lowered by less than 1.5 inches (38 millimetres) (IJC 1914, pp. 47, 63). With that figure established, there was little basis to conclude that the power generation opportunity for the Town of Kenora would be affected. The Commission endorsed the application, sending its formal opinion recommending approval to the two governments on 15 January 1914. Later communication from the IJC put the GWWD on notice that it would not consider any application to increase the amount of water it could take to any amount more than 100,000,000 gallons per day (454,600,000 litres per day) (Cherney 2009, p. 3, Scott nd, p. 25, Chace 1920b, pp. 2–3). The maximum average daily draw since then, 66,000,000 gallons per day (300,000,000 litres per day) occurred in 1988 (Shoal Lake Watershed Working Group).
The GWWD had the provincial act to rely upon for most of its property acquisition, but that was not the case for aboriginal reserve lands. The intake and the initial sections of the aqueduct were located on reserve land belonging to Shoal Lake Band 40. The reserve was regulated under The Indian Act of the Dominion Government. With virtually all of Indian Bay, Snowshoe Bay, and the adjacent shore lines being part of Band 40’s reserve, it was necessary for the GWWD to acquire rights to some of that land. The Indian Act contained a provision whereby if a municipal authority had provincial statutory authority “for taking or using lands or any interest in lands without the consent of the owner,” it could do so for reserve lands with the approval of the Governor in Council (Dominion Cabinet). The GWWD had such statutory authority from the Manitoba Government. Due to the water coloration in Indian Bay from the Falcon River, the GWWD constructed a dike across the west end of the bay to isolate Falcon River waters, then dug a channel to drain the water into Snowshoe Bay in order to divert the water away from the aqueduct inlet. With the residents of Shoal Lake Band 40 living on the peninsula severed by the channel their community became land-locked. That circumstance has been a matter of contention in recent years. Significantly, the City of Winnipeg has made provision in its approved and forecast capital budget for the construction of a bridge to re-establish land access for Band 40. While this accommodation has been happening, Shoal Lake Band 39, whose reserve adjoins Band 40 in the vicinity of the aqueduct inlet, has been claiming payment from the City of Winnipeg for use of water to which it claims ownership.
The Winnipeg Aqueduct was completed on time and quite close to budget by December of 1918. That was after four years of involvement in the First World War with all its effects, and three months after the City’s population had been severely affected by the Spanish Flu epidemic. The engineers, administrators, and contractors on the Winnipeg Aqueduct executed a unique project that is remarkable for its scope and its lasting ability to serve the needs of the City of Winnipeg. In so doing they were confronted with and overcame unique physical and environmental conditions using creative design, testing and construction processes. Thomas Deacon’s “menace of a water famine” had been subdued. When one considers the project in the context of the English translation of the Latin motto on the City of Winnipeg’s Coat of Arms, “One With the Strength of Many”, its significance becomes apparent.
The minute books of the meetings of the Administration Board of the Greater Winnipeg Water District between 1913 and 1918 are stored at the Winnipeg Water and Waste Department’s Resource Centre, 1199 Pacific Avenue, Winnipeg. Records of the Greater Winnipeg Water District are also at the Resource Centre. As part of those records there are 1,018 photographs taken at the time of the aqueduct construction at the Resource Centre. The identification number for the digitized collection is 000115291.
Agnew, N. 1884. “Our water supply: Suggestions as to the water we drink and where to get it from,” Manitoba Historical Society Transactions, Series 1, No. 11. Read 21 February 1884.
Artibise, A. F. J. 1975. Winnipeg: A Social History of Urban Growth 1874-1914. Montreal, QC: McGill-Queen’s University Press.
Canadian Public Works Association, Manitoba Chapter (CPWA). 2000. Greater Winnipeg Water District’s Shoal Lake Aqueduct Nomination for the American Public Works Association’s Top Ten Public Works Projects of the 20th Century. Winnipeg, MB.
Chace, W. G., M. V. Sauer. 1917. The aqueduct for the Greater Winnipeg Water District. Transactions of the Canadian Society of Civil Engineers. Volume XXX Part II: 375-395.
Chace, W. G. 1920a. Construction features of the water works of the Greater Winnipeg Water District. Journal of the American Water Works Association, Volume VII: 931-949.
Cherney, B. 2009. 90th anniversary of Shoal Lake aqueduct—first phase was construction of GWWD Railway, Winnipeg Real Estate News, 16 October 2009.
Greater Winnipeg Water District. 1913–1918. Minutes of meetings of the Administration Board. The City of Winnipeg Water and Waste Department.
Greater Winnipeg Water District. 1918. Aqueduct Construction Scheme: What it Is, What It Means. Winnipeg, MB: Telegram Job Printers Ltd.
Hering, R., F. P. Stearns and J. H. Fuertes. 1913. Report on a water supply from Shoal Lake for the Greater Winnipeg Water District. New York, NY: Stovel Company Limited, Winnipeg.
International Joint Commission. 1914. Hearings and Arguments in the Matter of the Application of The Greater Winnipeg Water District for Approval of the Diversion of the Waters of the Lake of the Woods and Shoal Lake for Sanitary and Domestic Purposes. Washington, DC.
Phare, Merrell-Ann S. 2009. Denying the Source: The Crisis of First Nations Water Rights. Surrey, BC: Rocky Mountain Books.
Province of Manitoba. 1913. Acts of the Legislature of the Province of Manitoba: Third Session of the Thirteenth Legislature. Winnipeg, MB: King’s Printer.
Scott, W. M. 1938. The Water Supply of Greater Winnipeg. Journal of the American Water Works Association, Vol. 30 No. 11: 1872–1885.
Scott, W. M. nd. The Water Supply of The Greater Winnipeg Water District. Unbound paper labelled as presented at a meeting of the American Water Works Association in March 1938. [City of Winnipeg Water and Waste Department]
Shropshire, L. Mayor Battles Critics. Winnipeg Real Estate News. 7 January 1994.
Siamandas, G. nd. Winnipeg’s Shoal Lake Aqueduct.
Slichter, C. S. 1912. The Water Supply of the City of Winnipeg to Public Utilities Commissioner, Province of Manitoba, Winnipeg, MB.
Water and Waste Department, The City of Winnipeg. nd. Records of the Greater Winnipeg Water District.
Page revised: 26 September 2021