Last week’s column covered the story of the completion of the Conestogo Dam up to the spring of 1958. The dam was in service to retain that year’s spring runoff, but it was not much of a test. The runoff in 1958 was one of the lightest in years.
There were no major problems with the structure, and the reservoir continued to fill slowly through the late spring and early summer of 1958. Troubles, though, continued to plague the Grand River Conservation Commission. Their biggest foe, Maryborough Township, had been more or less placated, but Reeve Phil Rowland was still not happy with the project that had more or less severed his township.
Meanwhile, completion of the road work in the area continued well into 1958. There was still some heavy construction to complete, including the raising of a couple of bridges, and a great deal of paving to do.
A new municipal critic emerged early in the year. The town of Fergus objected to its assessment to cover a portion of the operating costs of the dam, on the grounds that the town upstream on the Grand River, derived no benefit from it.
A bigger battle involved the GRCC’s sister organization, the Grand Valley Conservation Authority, which had jurisdiction over the land surrounding the reservoir. The GRCC had surveyed several hundred cottage lots and began leasing them in 1957, but stopped when the GVCA raised several legal issues. The provincial government intervened, requesting that no new structures go up until everyone agreed on a comprehensive land use plan. The standoff continued through 1958.
Some cottages had already gone up during 1957, though owners were not entirely sure of the eventual location of the shoreline of Lake Conestoga, as the future reservoir was being called. In some cases, access to roads still had to be worked out with the Conservation Authority and private land owners. Several charitable organizations were looking at the area, with plans for children’s summer camps.
More than a few people had already submitted applications for cottage building permits to Maryborough council. On hand were 379 applications for the 509 proposed cottage lots. The township, which was completing its first building bylaw, was unable to comply.
The township had received no street plan of the proposed cottage grounds. Officials could not issue a permit under those conditions.
GRCC directors and staff met with provincial officials during the summer, culminating with a joint meeting of all concerned on Oct. 6. There was plenty of talk but no resolution of the jurisdictional issues. In the interest of fairness, the GRCC issued refunds to all those who had put down payments on their lots.
At its board meeting on Oct. 29, the GRCC voted to seek a legal opinion to deal with the land matters. The Commissioners themselves were hardly of one mind on the matter. Several believed that the number of cottages should be severely limited, and the bulk of the land surrounding the lake should be devoted to reforestation. They feared that eventually they would face the unattractive prospect of wall-to-wall cottages all around the lake.
Totally frustrated with progress, the GRCC at its monthly meeting on Oct. 29 resolved to seek a legal opinion, and press on if possible with its plans for the dam and lake and the surrounding land.
With the standoff between the GRCC and the GRCA, and ill will continuing with some of the others involved in the project, the official completion date of Oct. 15, 1958 came and went with no ceremony, quite in contrast to the official opening of the Shand Dam 16 years earlier, when Premier Mitch Hepburn had officiated. During 1958m the lake came nowhere near to its maximum capacity of 45,000 acre-feet, which was about 10% less than Lake Belwood.
At the GRCC annual meeting on Feb. 20, 1959, chairman Marcel Pequegnat reported that during 1958 the lake had contained insufficient water to augment the flow of the Conestogo River. The GRCC had concluded its negotiations with Wellington County and Maryborough Township over road matters during 1958, he reported, but the cottage issue remained to be sorted out. He and the directors had succeeded in getting the provincial government to amend the powers and jurisdiction of the Grand River Conservation Commission to permit the cottage issues to be resolved.
Most of the outstanding issues regarding the cottage and land use issues were sorted out during 1959. There never was a big opening or dedication ceremony. One of the indirect outcomes of the political and jurisdictional problems was the combination of the two agencies, the GRCC and GVCA, into the present Grand River Conservation Authority, with jurisdiction over all matters pertaining to the Grand River system and conservation matters within the watershed.
In 1983, on the 25th anniversary of the dam, the GRCA co-operated with local municipalities for a weekend-long celebration. By then, most of the earlier animosity had evaporated, and the political players of 1958 were out of public life. The celebrations were very successful, and there was even talk of making the event an annual affair.
The low water levels of 1958 had emboldened the critics of the project. They claimed that they had been correct in denouncing the dam from the beginning, and that the lake would never fill or be effective in smoothing the flow of the Conestogo.
But in subsequent years, conditions amply justified the project. Its capacity to hold back flood waters returned its cost many times over the next half-century.