Hot, dry summer of 1936 spurred conservation measures

The following is a re-print of a past column by former Advertiser columnist Stephen Thorning, who passed away on Feb. 23, 2015. Some text has been updated to reflect changes since the original publication and any images used may not be the same as those that accompanied the original publication.

Last week’s column described the early part of the summer of 1936, which combined drought with some of the hottest weather ever experienced locally.

This week’s paragraphs conclude that account, and consider some of the consequences.

The last week of July 1936 saw a return to more normal conditions, with temperatures in the average range and some rainfall. The precipitation, though, was light and uneven.

On Aug. 2 the heat wave returned. The next day the thermometer topped the 32 Celsius mark (90 Fahrenheit) at Fergus, and it was worse elsewhere. Toronto hit 36C (97F). Some rain passed through in the early evening, but like the showers a week earlier, it was spotty.

By then, with the combination of weeks of heat and drought, conditions had reached emergency status. The town of Dundas was the first to experience a crisis when its municipal water supply dried up completely. The stagnant and polluted waters of nearby Coote’s Paradise were useless. Crews rushed day and night to connect a temporary line to the Hamilton water supply.

Elsewhere the situation was almost as bad. Many homeowners relying on wells ran out of water. Shallow dug wells were then common. Those who still had a feeble stream from their pumps noted that the water was warm, and often had smells and suspicious colours.

The weather station at Guelph’s Ontario Agricultural College reported on Aug. 13 that the total rainfall in the six weeks since the beginning of July had been three-quarters of an inch. The historic average for that period was about 4.5 inches.

In the upper reaches of the Grand Basin the fires that had broken out in July continued to burn. Four major fires ate away at the Luther Marsh. By Aug. 10 they had burned through more than 1,000 acres east and northeast of Damascus. The largest claimed portions of Concessions 8, 9 and 10 of East Luther, burning not only the marsh, but several fields of grain and a few buildings.

By mid August trees showed signs of extreme stress. Horse chestnut and ash trees began dropping their leaves, and some maples showed premature signs of fall colour. Farmers despaired as prospects for crops looked more dismal by the hour.

The flow in the Grand River, which had been low since early June, decreased daily. On Aug. 11 the river dried up completely at the east end of Fergus. From there to Paris some small tributaries continued to flow a little, but overall the river was little more than a series of stagnant pools. The odors repelled people, and made breathing hideous for those who lived or worked near the river.

There was no previous record of the Grand ever drying up. Local conservationists could recall nothing like it.

Robert Kerr of Fergus, who had been watching the river since the 1880s and knew it better than anyone, became very vocal in denouncing the years of mindless desecration of the water course.

The tributaries were in a similar condition. The Irvine had virtually dried up, fed only by a couple of springs that still flowed. The Conestogo dried up completely at Arthur, and the Speed at Rockwood had ceased to flow. Only the Nith, which enters the Grand at Paris, continued to run, but with a much reduced volume.

At Doon, the Grand’s flow dropped to 13 cubic feet per second, or .37 cubic metres. The effluent from the Kitchener sewage plant added a further 15 cubic feet. That meant that more than half of the Grand’s flow from there to Paris consisted of sewage output. Even with the Nith’s contribution, that meant that Brantford, which relied on the river for its municipal water supply, was at the point of crisis.

The Grand River Conservation Commission (GRCC) and its various predecessors had been considering a system of dams in the Grand watershed for 25 years, both to regulate the flows and to generate electricity.

With senior levels of government cutting back expenditures through the early and mid 1930s, the likelihood of any major construction had become slim. Indeed, the GRCC had not met since the spring of 1935 – more than a year earlier.

In August the commission’s members realized that the Grand basin was suffering the consequences of deferrals and inaction. They scheduled an emergency meeting at Brantford for Aug. 17, and sent out appeals for assistance to Mitch Hepburn’s provincial government and to Prime Minister Mackenzie King. In reply they received sincere sympathy, but no promises of immediate aid or construction assistance.

Nevertheless, the Aug. 17 meeting started the wheels rolling, albeit slowly and with much inertia. The result, after several false starts and interminable meetings, would be the completion of the Shand Dam at Belwood in 1942.

Major dam projects, though, could do nothing for the immediate crisis of 1936. By August all municipalities had watering bans in place, and they kept their fingers crossed that the feeble flow of warm water would continue until rains replenished the water table. But the drought continued, into the third and then the fourth week of August, though by then conditions seemed to have passed their worst.

In the north, the fires continued to burn. Some people feared that the entire marsh would be burned out, with major consequences to wildlife and to the area’s significant role as a sponge, retaining water and releasing it slowly into the various streams issuing from it. There were no serious efforts to battle the fires, and clouds of smoke drifted to the south.

The smell of the fires was noticeable as far away as Guelph.

Adding to the problems were scattered grass fires in hay fields and pastures across the county. The vegetation had become so dry that the smallest spark or ember could start a blaze. Many farmers did not bother to harvest their grain, and those who did reported dismal yields, hardly worth the work and cost of harvesting. To add to the problems, prices stood at historic lows.

The agricultural conditions were not just local. Across most of the province the crops were the worst in memory, except in the extreme southwest counties of Kent and Essex, and in a few isolated locations that had received some of the scattered showers over the summer.

Some relief from the extreme conditions came on Aug. 21, with a few showers here and there. Heavier rains arrived two days later, accompanied by thunder and lightning. That precipitation made a difference to some late crops, but there was virtually no runoff to augment the river levels.

Real relief came after Sept. 3, with some significant and general rain for about a week. By Sept. 10 the Grand and its tributaries flowed again. The only people complaining about the precipitation were officials of the CNE. The rain kept people away from their show.

Temperatures, rainfall and river levels returned to normal during September 1936, but the GRCC continued to press on with its discussions and plans. More than two years earlier, the group had drawn rough plans for a dam at Waldemar, near Grand Valley, that would have provided a reservoir four miles long, and a consistent minimum flow in the river. They also planned a second dam to maintain water levels in the marsh.

Municipalities in the upper reaches of the basin had strongly opposed those plans. They could see no benefit to themselves. But in 1936, the fires wiped out dozens of farmers in that area.

At all costs, the GRCC wanted to avoid another summer like the one of 1936. Despite the immense costs of the experience, there were still those who believed nothing should be done. Among them was Waterloo. In October 1936 their officials claimed that the cost of dams and river restoration, “an experiment” in their words, would far exceed any benefits.

Amazingly, the GRCC and other conservationists convinced the provincial Hepburn government that action was needed. In the late fall of 1936 staff from the ministries of highways and health conducted a survey of the river valley.

Together, Hepburn and the commission brought the federal government onside in 1937 in a cost-sharing scheme. Perhaps Mackenzie King’s personal links with the Kitchener area helped.

In any case, the summer of 1936 was the catalyst in bringing about some action. The provincial government passed the Grand River Act early in 1938. That summer, agents began purchasing land for future dams and reservoirs in the Luther Marsh and above Fergus.

In July, H.S. Acres of Niagara Falls signed a contract as chief engineer, and began the detailed work that led to the construction of the Shand and Luther dams.

Is the summer of 2005 the equal of 1936? That is impossible to say. In most summers the dams in the Grand River system provide about 60% of the water flow. On occasion that figure can rise above 80%, and it has approached 100%, most recently in 2001 at Kitchener.

Close observers of the river are looking forward to seeing the final figures for 2005 later this fall.

Air conditioning and thicker insulation in buildings have kept most people from experiencing the extreme heat in the way they did in 1936.

As well, both the public and medical authorities have a much better appreciation of the effects of heat and dehydration, particularly on the young, the elderly and those with health problems. Wells generally are deeper and more dependable, and everyone is conscious of the effects of contaminated water.

Most of all, no two summers are ever the same.

But on our experience so far in 2005, this year’s summer, like that of 1936, is likely to be remembered for a long time.

*This column was originally published in the Wellington Advertiser on Aug. 5, 2005.


Stephen Thorning - 1949-2015