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dave obee The water woes of 1908

By Dave Obee

Yes, you want a green lawn, but is there enough water in the reservoir? That question was asked many times in many summers in Victoria's history.

June 1908, a century ago, was no exception. The City of Victoria was worried that its supply of water might be drying up, and was cautioning that residents might need to stop sprinkling their lawns. Limits had already been imposed on the amount of time that watering could be done.

The city's water came from Elk Lake -- but James Raymur, the city's water commissioner, said the problem was not that the lake was running short.

The Daily Colonist reported that the lake level was eight inches below the level of two years earlier, but there had been a surge in the connections.

There were 2,000 more houses and other buildings drawing water from the system, but the distribution mains were the same size as before. The mains did not have the capacity for the volumes required.

"The danger from a fire breaking out when the water is being freely used for sprinkling purposes and thus reducing the pressure has left the council to the extent of even considering the question of prohibiting law sprinkling altogether," the Colonist said.

City officials were looking at radical ways to deal with the crisis. One idea was to turn off the flow of water to anyone living outside of Victoria's city limits -- and that would have been bad news for the people living in Oak Bay and Saanich.

Raymur rejected the idea. He said that outsiders were taking only 20,000 gallons a day, and that was just a drop in the bucket, so to speak. That amount would not ease the shortfall the city was facing.

Besides, he said, the water shortage was having the greatest impact in the area around Rockland Avenue, which was not served by the pumping station that was directing water outside the city. Forcing Oak Bay to go dry would not result in another gallon going to Rockland.

The city brought in an expert from Vancouver, an engineer named Arthur L. Adams. He agreed that the city's problem was not with Elk Lake, which had plenty of water, but with the low capacity of the distribution system.

He said Elk Lake could easily provide enough water for a city of 40,000 to 50,000. At the time, Victoria had only about 30,000 people.

Adams also said that the Smith's Hill reservoir -- midway between today's Mayfair and Hillside shopping centres -- would be an essential part of the city's water system no matter where the water came from -- Elk Lake, Goldstream or Sooke.

He had one other idea to promote the conservation of water: Meters, so people would pay based on the amount of water they used.

The water woes of 1908 caused the mayor, Dr. Lewis Hall, to take a shot at the provincial government.

He noted that in 1873, the province had given the city exclusive rights for water within 20 miles (32 kilometres), but reneged on the promise in 1892. In that year, the Goldstream waters were handed to the Esquimalt Waterworks Co.

Hall said the province should confiscate the Goldstream waterworks and hand them over, at cost, to Victoria. At the time, the Goldstream water was being sold to the B.C. Electric Company, which used it for generating power.

Domestic water for Esquimalt and Victoria West was being drawn from Thetis Lake. The Goldstream water would not provide any immediate solutions to Victoria.

Hall said it would take at least 15 months to build the mains that would be needed to get the water to Victoria. It took much more time, not to mention lawsuits, before Victoria secured a stable supply of pure water. That came in 1915 with the opening of the Sooke Lake waterworks.

But back to 1908. Not all of the district's water went to lawns and gardens. Some of it went into our bodies, at places such as the new tea room, opened in the Spencer department store on Government Street on Saturday, June 13.

"It is our desire and aim to give the public the best service our experience makes possible," Spencer's said in its advertisements.

"We aim not to wait until the public demands a thing, but to anticipate their wishes, and to make improvements and extensions, not because they are a necessity to the public, but because they will be a convenience to them and make shopping at our store a pleasure to the customer."

The tea room was on the third floor of Spencer's, and spanned the entire width of the store, giving it a splendid view of the Inner Harbour.

On opening day, staff served tea and cake as well as ice cream. An orchestra was on hand to add some musical atmosphere.

Posted June 22, 2008


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