For many of us, clean water is so plentiful and readily available that we rarely, if ever, pause to consider what life would be like without it.Marcus Samuelsson
April 6th 2019 marks the 100 year anniversary of clean water from Shoal Lake first flowing out of the taps in Winnipeg homes. The postcard below from the Rob McInnes Postcard Collection features the intake of the Shoal Lake Aqueduct near the Manitoba-Ontario border.
The aqueduct was built by the Greater Winnipeg Water District between 1914 and 1918 and still serves Winnipeg today. Using gravity, it moves water through approximately 135 kilometers of concrete conduit from Shoal Lake to the Deacon Reservoir just east of the city; a pressurized system then distributes water throughout Winnipeg. Just imagine how this would have changed the lives of Winnipeggers 100 years ago.
In the early days, water from the Red and Assiniboine Rivers was simply taken and carried in barrels by horse-drawn wagon. Then, from the early 1880s until 1898 The Winnipeg Water Works Company supplied and distributed water; its source was the Assiniboine River, just downstream from the Maryland Bridge.
After the City bought out the Water Works Company, water was supplied by an artesian well system from 1899 but it only provided a limited supply. Contaminated river water from the Assiniboine was still used for emergencies like fires. The problem was, after pumping river water into the mains, illness would follow. There was a typhoid fever epidemic in 1904 and clean water became a priority for Winnipeg’s growth.
Although the well system was expanded it simply couldn’t keep up with the city’s rapid expansion and the search for a source of clear, soft water began. Shoal Lake was chosen for its high quality water, despite its distance from Winnipeg and the cost of the project. Fortunately, because of Winnipeg’s boom around the time the aqueduct project began, it was built large to serve the future “Chicago of the North” which is how the system is still able to serve our city.
For a variety of Winnipeg postcards, many from the early 1900s, browse PastForward, our digital public history. Visit the Local History Room on the fourth floor to see some of the original documents relating to the construction of the aqueduct.
While Winnipeggers are fortunate to have clean water to drink, the building of the aqueduct has had some unfortunate consequences for members of another community. Shoal Lake 40 First Nation is located on a peninsula that was cut off from the mainland in order to divert the murkier waters of the Falcon River away from the aqueduct’s intake. Shoal Lake residents received a running water system in the 1990s but experienced a cryptosporidiosis outbreak shortly thereafter. Having no roads made it very difficult to organize the completion of a necessary water treatment plant.
18 years is a very long time to be under a boil-water advisory but steps are being taken to connect Shoal Lake 40 to the mainland. Two all-season bridges have been completed and construction of Freedom Road has reached the Trans-Canada Highway to allow community members to safely access goods and services. The community is now raising awareness of the need for clean water. Drinking bottled water should only be a short term solution and the Canadian Government has pledged to end long-term drinking water advisories on First Nations reserves by March 2021 (click the link to see the progress so far).
If you would like to learn more about Shoal Lake 40 First Nation and their history surrounding the Winnipeg Aqueduct, check out Adele Perry’s book Aqueduct: Colonialism, Resources, and the Histories We Remember.