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Water woes
Jul 31, 2009

What can be learned from Winnipeg’s early history is that municipal ownership did not at first deliver clean potable water to its residents as promised, nor did the private sector which originally developed the city’s water supply. The only real difference to be found in these early years is that city officials were prone to act more quickly than the private sector — more or less by trial and error — upon health concerns associated with the domestic water supply. The other lesson to be learned is that what occurred decades ago cannot so readily be used as an example of what might be the case today. Instead, it is best to use the early history of Winnipeg’s domestic water supply in the context of what not to do.

Historically, Winnipeg experienced great difficulty insuring that the water its residents consumed was safe. In its earliest incarnation, the water was supplied by the private sector, which up to 1899 involved a city contract with the Winnipeg Water Works Company. The private-sector company used various sources to supply water, including the Assiniboine River and artesian wells. Its first charter with the city in 1880 was for water taken from the Assiniboine, which as it turned out was not such a good idea. Not only was the river prone to severe drops in summer water levels, but the water was often contaminated, especially with typhoid bacilli. In times of peak need, water from the river had been pumped into the domestic supply, leading to increased cases of typhoid fever among city residents that was the direct result of the bacteria contamination from dumping raw sewage into that same river. 

Since the city’s incorporation in 1873, it had been prone to serious  typhoid epidemics. Eventually, Winnipeg became known as the “typhoid Capital of North America” — the result of recording more cases and deaths per capita than any other major city. Whatever the source, it became quite evident to city officials that an effective sewage system and clean drinking water were linked and would lead to a solution.

In early 1899, the city purchased the Winnipeg Water Works Company for $237,000. By 1900, artesian wells were the primary source of Winnipeg water. “The engines (for the pumps) worked beautifully and as ... (they) ... increased their speed the pumps at the old buildings were shut off and instead of water from the Assiniboine River pulsating through the mains the city has clear water from the new artesian well,” reported the Morning Telegram on October 24, 1900. 

But the new era of clean water became a myth when sewage eventually seeped into and contaminated the wells. In 1900, there were a reported 582 typhoid cases among the city’s 42,500 residents, resulting in 34 deaths. Two years later, the city’s population reached 45,400 and there were 356 cases and 29 deaths. When the population stood at 67,300 in 1904, the number of cases jumped to 1,276 and 133 people died. In 1905, there would be another 1,606 cases and 106 deaths.

Typhoid was particularly rampant in the city’s poorer districts, such as the North End — the rabbit’s warren of houses and tenements where only 42 per cent of the dwellings were connected to the city water and sewer system. On the other hand, in the city’s prosperous south end, 78 per cent of homes were connected.

In 1905, Mayor Thomas Sharpe, after an investigation of water and sewer systems in 11 eastern cities in the United States and Canada, commissioned Edwin O. Jordon, a professor of bacteriology at the University of Chicago, to prepare a study of Winnipeg’s typhoid epidemic.

“One of the great troubles in Winnipeg is that the city has grown from a village ... so rapidly that the municipal measures dealing with many problems ... have not had the necessary considerations to make them adequate to the needs of the case,” said Sharpe.

Jordon attributed the typhoid epidemic to contact between infected people, the use of box closets, the lack of sewer connections, infections from the milk supply and the use of Assiniboine water. Of the 12,000 buildings in Winnipeg, Jordon found that 5,600 were connected to the sewer system with the remainder using privies, including 6,153 box-closets (outhouses) — waste was collected in wooden boxes.

He said under the prevailing conditions it was certain infection would spread from one area of the city to the other. “The welfare of one section of the city is inseparably connected with that of another,” he added.  

Typhoid was only contained with the completion of the Shoal Lake aqueduct in 1919, which brought clean potable drinking water to Winnipeg, and included the expansion and improvements to the city’s sewage system. As a result of a 2002 spill due to a mechanical failure at the North End Pollution Control Centre, which caused 427,000 cubic metres of sewage to flow into the Red River, the province deemed all past improvements inadequate. The city was forced to undertake the construction of a $1.2-billion new sewage treatment facility and do away with its antiquated combined sewer system (at times of heavy rainfall and run-off, water flows through pipes carrying human waste). 

The provincial order led to city council recently voting to abandon its water  and waste department in favour of new arm’s-length water and sewer utility, which is one of the more controversial acts of the council in recent years. The original fear had been that the city would be privatizing the department.

“The sky is not red, the Earth is not flat, and we’re not privatizing anything” said Mayor Sam Katz at the end of a marathon session of council when the 10-6 decision to create a stand-alone utility, responsible for sewage and water treatment, garbage and recycling collection and possibly a green-energy subsidiary, was taken. Officially, it is to be known as a municipal corporate utility, with rates set by the Public Utilities Board. One focus of the new utility appears to be the sale of services, such as drinking water, to exurban communities, a way of generating revenue to pay for the new treatment plant and other improvements.

Whatever the utility’s new incarnation, it is not a case of history repeating itself.  The city learned its lesson from the earlier poorly-performing and outright dangerous private-sector water company. As to this new utility’s effectiveness and cost-efficiency in delivering services to city residents, only time will tell.