A Drop to Drink
Victorians endured a couple of rainy weeks at the beginning of April – but the rest of the world hasn’t been so lucky. Bush fires ravaged Australia, activists at the World Water Forum demanded that water be recognized as a fundamental human right, and California has faced water rationing. So it’s a good time to celebrate a blessed component of our local infrastructure: Victoria’s water supply, the product of a century of engineering, foresight, and legal wrangling.
As noted on this blog previously, Victoria originally piped in its water from Spring Ridge (today’s Fernwood), and then, starting in 1874, from Elk Lake. By 1904, though, it was clear that even vast Elk Lake wasn’t sufficient. Many of Victoria’s 30,000 residents were connected to the water system, often preventing enough pressure for fire hoses – a dangerous predicament in a wood-built town. So the city’s leaders looked westward, to the rain-drenched Sooke Hills.
They were not the first. In 1892, Theodore Lubbe, a successful fur merchant, had started building a series of dams in the headwaters of the Goldstream River, and then piping the water – which gained tremendous pressure as it fell from his hilltop reservoirs – to the Esquimalt naval base. He also earned good money selling the water to a hydroelectric station downstream (left) that generated power for Victoria’s streetlights and streetcars. The city took a dim view of Lubbe, however. It argued that the province had originally given Victoria exclusive rights to all water within 20 miles (32 km) of the city, and it sued. In 1906 the case went all the way to the Privy Council in England, and Victoria lost.
What to do? The following year, the city recruited Arthur L. Adams, a San Francisco water expert, to assess Victoria’s options. After surveying the region, Adams reported that Sooke Lake “would prove an almost ideal source of supply,” providing up to 23 million gallons daily, “sufficient for several hundred thousand people.” In a 1908 referendum, Victorians approved Adams’ plan, and the city went to work, buying up summer cottages on the lakefront, and building a 43-kilometre concrete flowline (right) all the way around the hills – thus avoiding Lubbe’s property – to the Humpback reservoir and a new water main to the city. Mayor Alexander Stewart turned on the taps at the Sooke dam on May 28, 1915. “Few cities in western Canada,” the Victoria Daily Times announced, “will be able to boast of such a satisfactory supply as will be afforded by the system which is opened to-day.”
Such a strategic asset created its own concerns. World War I raged at the time, and the city declared the watershed a restricted area, guarded by soldiers on the lookout for German espionage. (Caretakers still patrol the watershed today, mainly to shoo away hikers and would-be marijuana farmers.) During WWII, the federal government also ordered Victoria to start disinfecting its water with chlorine as a security measure. The city continued the practice after the war, despite public protests, because the Greater Victoria Water District started logging the watershed in 1949 to finance improvements to the water system. (Victoria has never added fluoride to its water, thanks to region-wide referendums against fluoridation in 1959.)
Duly protected, the abundant water enabled Victoria to enjoy an industrial boom. During the 1950s, for example, the Sidney Roofing and Paper Company, which stood on the site of today’s Ocean Pointe resort, used as much as a quarter of the city’s total daily supply, consuming 200 tons of water to make every ton of its paper. The water district had already acquired Lubbe’s facilities at Goldstream – his biggest customer dried up when the huge Jordan River power station came on line in 1911 – but by the 1960s, the city’s water system needed to expand again. At a cost of $5.6 million, it dug a nine-kilometre tunnel through the rock (click on photo left), connecting Sooke Lake directly to a treatment facility and the Humpback reservoir, and built a larger dam, opened in 1970, that tripled the system’s daily capacity.
The 1990s, however, proved the most challenging decade for Victoria's water system.
1992: The water district board decides the system still doesn’t have enough capacity for extended dry periods, and begins work to raise the Sooke dam, triggering protests that the water will be contaminated by decades of logging, and that the focus should be on conservation instead of greater capacity.The Sooke Lake dam was finally raised in 2002, and the city’s water wars have been pretty quiet ever since. Victoria’s system now boasts a capacity of some 25 billion gallons, enough to supply the city for two years without any rainfall. In 2007, it recieved an “A” for reliability and public health in a national comparison of municipal water; that year, the CRD also bought the 8,761-hectare Leech River watershed for $59 million, anticipating that the city will need its water in 25 years as well. Unlike many parched places, it seems Victoria has enough water to keep on growing.
1994: The B.C. Supreme Court rules that the water district has never had legal authority to commercially log the watershed, but can log to build new water facilities.
1995: More than 100 Victorians fall sick with toxoplasmosis, a parasitic infection – the first time the disease is linked to municipal water. Investigators determine the outbreak was caused by the feces of wild cats at the Humpback reservoir. The water department closes the reservoir and, on the orders of the region’s chief medical officer, begins construction of a $12.5-million disinfection plant that uses ultraviolet light to neutralize micro-organisms that aren’t killed by chlorine. When the UV plant (pictured below right) opens in 2004, it's the biggest on the continent.
1996: As the water district clears timber to prepare for the expansion of Sooke Lake, the province appoints special commissioner David Perry to assess the governance of the water supply. Perry recommends creation of a new, accountable regional water commission. A year later, the commission approves raising the dam.
1999: The Capital Regional District secures the Sooke watershed by negotiating a 1,300-hectare land swap with Kapoor Lumber, a company that has been logging in and around Sooke Lake since the 1920s. The company is owned by the two daughters of Kapoor Singh, both doctors, who use the profits to run a clinic in the Punjab.
CRD Water is giving free tours of its Sooke Lake facilities from May 4 to 9, to mark National Drinking Water Week. For reservations, call 250-413-4207.
PS As you can tell from the story above, our water system heavily relies upon old-fashioned gravity. The system also has to fight against Newton’s discovery, however, because many Victorians live on hills, and water has to be pumped up to numerous reservoirs to serve them. The city’s oldest reservoir is on Smith’s Hill, now Summit Park, but the most distinctive of them sits on Mount Tolmie. (Some people think the reservoir is the concrete slab on the very peak, but that’s the old platform for a WWII radio building. The reservoir is further down, at the end of Cromwell Road.) Built in 1960 (photo left), it contains six million gallons of water and is covered by nearly two acres of concrete. A few years ago it had to be seismically upgraded, for fear that it would unleash a deadly wave on homes below if it cracked open. But why does it have a roof, when other reservoirs are open to the sky? Answer: because planners designed it at the height of the Cold War, and wanted to keep the water safe from nuclear fallout.
PPS Dustin Creviston has created an excellent Wikipedia page on the history of the Sooke flowline, and where to see it. Check it out here.