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?



Photo by Robert Taylor

A view of the Trent Canal in Campbellford.

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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.

Equipment repairs are hardly the only problem, though. In its 2008 report, the expert panel cited the case of the dead carp. Early in its consultations, the group began to receive complaints about thousands of carp carcasses washing up on the shores of Kawarthas lakes. As it inquired about solutions, the panel found itself confronting the fact that the TSW is regulated by everyone and therefore no one. While Parks Canada is ostensibly in charge, the water is subject to the authority of two dozen government agencies (including Fisheries and Oceans Canada), plus nearly 70 pieces of legislation, some of which are almost absurdly out of date. “The dead carp issue graphically illustrated to us the challenge of governance on the waterway,” the panel noted. Adds the coalition’s Martin Rist, “It is an anomaly for the federal government to be managing provincial waters.” (The Ministry of Natural Resources concluded the carp died because of environmental factors, spawning stress, and the high population, all of which made them susceptible to a disease outbreak.)

Provincial water rules tend to be conservation oriented, but the TSW’s regulations are a holdover from the water-way’s industrial past. Parks Canada staff closely manage the canals’ depths by driving around to the reservoir lakes and adjusting the number of squared logs at the dams based on the water level in the canals, to ensure the waterway is navigable. As they watch lake levels fall over the course of each summer, upstream cottagers are frustrated by Parks Canada’s management practices, such as releasing water from dams even if there’s been a lot of rain. Hunt also makes the point that an automated system of upstream dams would be more efficient and more sen-sitive to local conditions. But, he adds, “We’re not even talking about that.”

In January 2010, about 150 people representing the TSW’s many  stakeholders gathered at Trent University in Peterborough for what was billed as a leaders’ forum. Organized by Parks Canada and the university, the event was designed to tease out ideas on how to shore up the TSW’s future. (A report with recommendations came out in May.) The event was co-chaired by the TSW’s Dawn Bronson, the energetic superintendent appointed in 2010.

Money is at the top of her agenda. Because the government has frozen user fees, such as docking or parking charges, until the end of 2011, and expects only modest increases next year—Bruce Stanton says higher fees would discourage tourism—Parks Canada is looking to generate additional economic activity through the development of new run-of-the-river hydro dams, for example, as well as leasing out federally owned waterfront land along the canals for commercial uses, such as stores, restaurants, and other tourist attractions. As the panel study found, the TSW canal system gets about 1.5 million land-based visits each year. “I think there are other opportunities up and down the waterway,” Bronson says. “We’re going to start making some hard analysis.” To that end, Bronson has hired a hydro and new-business development manager to drum up private-sector partners and work with municipalities along the waterway to find other ways to spur development. But Parks Canada has yet to fully flesh out the balance of its economic development strategy.

For his part, Brian Hunt says the government should identify alternative funding sources. One possibility is a dedicated tax on waterfront landowners to maintain the infrastructure, though both Hunt and Rist stop short of calling for that. One problem is who would levy the tax. While the municipalities along the TSW collect $240 million in property taxes from waterfront real estate each year, some balk at the notion of kicking in any of those funds, or collecting even more, for the care of another government’s asset. “We don’t have enough money to look after our core services,” says County of Peterborough warden J. Murray Jones, who adds that sharing the tax base “is not going to happen from a municipal standpoint.” Others, however, leave the door ajar: “If we can play a role,” says Peterborough mayor Daryl Bennett, “we should be exploring it.”

It seems unlikely that the dozens of municipalities along the waterway could come to a consensus about establishing such a levy. After all, they don’t own the asset. In fact, during four years of scrutiny about the waterway’s troubled present and its somewhat uncertain future, Ottawa’s been clear about one key point: It’s not prepared to divest its responsibility for this enormous network of inland lakes and canals.

“At the end of the day,” concedes Bruce Stanton, “the Government of Canada has to pony up and get this system back to the point where it can provide the benefits of which it’s capable.”

This article was originally published on September 21, 2011

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Apr. 3, 2013

4:35 pm

Perhaps those who use the TSW and those whose economic viability depends on the system should pay the lion's share in its upkeep through some sort of levy system. You can't ask everyone to pay for something that only a select group use and make a living on. As for water quality itself, that is everyone's concern.

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