Wrangling continued until the dam was finished

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.


Stephen Thorning