Trouble on the Trent-Severn Waterway
Our largest national historic site is in dire need of repair, but who is going to fix it and who will pay?
A view of the Trent Canal in Campbellford.
Late in November 2009, Parks Canada announced it had to undertake emergency repairs to the dam at Lock 19, a key piece of the 386-km-long Trent-Severn Waterway (TSW). The century-old lock sits at Scotts Mills at the south end of Little Lake in Peterborough. Within hours, the “drawdown” had lowered the water level in the lake by 2.5 metres.
The unfortunate incident, although temporary, wasn’t just a local curiosity. A professor in the Environmental and Resources Studies program at Trent University warned that the lake’s fish, reptiles, and mammals could be put at risk. And, if the breakdown had occurred in “the summer, when thousands of boaters traverse Little Lake on their way along the system, the closure could have inflicted a very different form of damage. “Imagine the economic impact,” muses Brian Hunt, an accounting regulator who cottages in the Kawarthas and often boats through the TSW canal network. “It would have been devastating up and down the system. This is an accident waiting to happen.”
Most people think the TSW is simply a long channel slashing through southern Ontario, but the system’s watershed—twice the size of P.E.I.—extends from Lake Ontario to the Haliburton Highlands, and from Trenton to Georgian Bay. The canal network itself comprises 44 locks and the world’s highest hydraulic lift, as well as 160 upstream lakes and dams that supply water for the channel throughout the summer. The waterfront properties on those lakes have an estimated market value of $23.6 billion, and generate $1 billion in economic activity each year.
But the unexpected draining of Little Lake showed that all is not well in this vast region of south-central Ontario. A 2008 study, commissioned by a six-member expert panel established by the federal government, found that the TSW is under mounting stress. It stated that the “jurisdictional, governance and regulatory framework of the waterway does not appear to be well suited to its emerging roles or indeed to its current needs.”
The panel’s comprehensive 97-page report, “It’s All About The Water,” noted that waterway residents and cottagers have been experiencing a deterioration in water quality, fluctuations in water levels, more weed growth, and the disappearance of wetlands. The problems, the study concluded, are the result of chronic underfunding; unresolved conflicts over the way Parks Canada, which is responsible for the TSW, manages water levels; and turf wars between government agencies.
A year before the Lock 19 incident, the panel also warned that the historic locks, canal walls, and dams were “old and leaking” and posed a risk of disruptions in service to businesses and property owners throughout the watershed. But Ottawa in recent decades hasn’t budgeted nearly enough to maintain the system’s capital assets, worth an estimated $1.4 billion. Until recently, the annual repair budget was a laughably inadequate $3 million.
Brian Hunt chairs Voices for the Trent-Severn Waterway, one of two groups—the other is the Coalition for Equitable Water Flow—whose members, cottagers and full-time residents, have been drawn into a campaign to confront these dauntingly tangled and far-reaching prob-lems. “Most people don’t understand how the system works,” says Hunt. Martin Rist, a retired engineer who cottages in Haliburton and co-chairs the coalition’s board, describes the TSW as “basically unmanageable,” because it cuts across so many jurisdictions.
In 2006, Ottawa began to take notice. Efforts are under way to sort out the TSW’s archaic regulations, and the government has unveiled a new partnership with Queen’s Park. The specifics are still to come, but the two governments have signed a “memorandum of understanding” that lays the groundwork for future cooperation. Still, Ottawa’s moves fall well short of the expert panel’s 26 recommendations, which Rist describes as “a great basis upon which we can strike a path forward.” Adds Hunt: “The feds haven’t addressed the fundamental issue. How are you going to pay for all this going forward?”
Built in the 19th century at the behest of Ontario’s logging barons, the Trent-Severn Waterway is a delicious example of the law of unintended consequences. Although Ottawa had spent $19 million on the infrastructure between 1833 and 1920, “not one steamer, or one kernel of wheat, would ever move through the canal,” wrote James T. Angus, author of A Respectable Ditch, a history of the TSW. Instead, the “reservoir lakes,” originally constructed to maintain canal water levels for industrial shipping, created thousands of hectares of prime lakefront real estate in the Kawarthas and the Haliburton Highlands, including nearly 5,000 km of shoreline and 120,000 properties.
In the early 1970s, Ottawa shifted responsibility for the TSW from Transport Canada to Parks Canada. From a jurisdictional point of view, the TSW is unusual: Provinces typically look after watershed management, while Parks Canada oversees national historic sites and parks. In this case, Parks Canada has for years allotted most of the waterway’s minuscule budget, operating the system according to 19th-century water level regulations written to allow logging barges to get through the canals.
While the TSW is Canada’s largest national historic site and within easy driving distance of the GTA, Parks Canada has long treated it like a foster child, the expert panel noted. The TSW was “brought into the house but never given the family name.”
In 2005, Bruce Stanton, a former Severn Township councillor whose family operates the Bayview Wildwood Resort on Sparrow Lake, ran in the federal election as the Conservative candidate in the riding of Simcoe North, which extends up to the Severn River. He campaigned on a pledge to address the neglect of the TSW. “It wasn’t on the government’s radar,” he says, characterizing the waterway as “an old relic of the past, cobbled together with duct tape and binder twine.” After his victory in 2006, Stanton moved a motion to ask the government to investigate the problems. His advocacy led to the establishment of the expert panel. The government then anted up $83 million over a five-year period—which ends in 2014—to chip away at the long list of deferred repairs to the century-old locks, dams, and bridges, which the expert panel estimated to cost almost $270 million.
That cash injection isn’t chump change, but it barely dents the problems from years of neglect. Parks Canada says $23.6 million will go to a wholesale refurbishment of Lock 37, at Bolsover; $22 million to concrete rehab, repainting locks, repairing swing bridges, replacing the step logs in the reservoir lakes, and safety improvements; $7.5 million to water monitoring equipment; and about $29 million to boosting the operating budget.
Stanton suspects the actual cost of repairs will likely top $400 million, about 50 per cent more than the panel’s estimate, and also says that the current spending plans only deal with deferred maintenance, not new equipment.
This article was originally published on September 21, 2011