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Behind the Scenes
Controlling the Waters
Professor Brian Osborne

This article originally appeared in the Winter/Spring, 2000 issue of the Friends of the Rideau newsletter, The Rideau Ripple. It is number four in Dr. Osborne's "Byways" series of articles.

The history of the Rideau Waterway is often thought of in terms of the herculean labours that went into the construction of dams, locks, and rock cuttings. But, once completed, more prosaic - yet no less important - tasks were crucial to the operation of the navigation system along the line of the waterway.

From the outset, Colonel By recognized that the Rideau should be thought of as an integrated hydrological system. This is why he advocated restricting the use of the lands and water throughout the system's watersheds. But his warnings were ignored in the face of pressures for settling and developing the Rideau corridor. Deforestation by lumbering and agriculture affected ground-water, run-off, and stream regimes. Also, water was diverted to power mills and supply urban needs. These threats to navigation became a major concern for those charged with operating the Rideau.

In particular, lockmasters were responsible for the operation of each station as an integral part of the total water control system. Apart from locking vessels along their way, they had to keep an eye on sluices, weirs, and water-levels. The problems were clear. The hydrological regime featured spring floods and summer droughts, and the summit lake reservoirs were depleted by each lockage. Accordingly, lockmasters were urged constantly to minimize the passage of water, prevent flood damage, protect levels in the summit reservoir-lakes -- and to be ever mindful of their role as individual elements in a well-integrated system.

The annual cycle commenced with the spring thaw and personnel at lock-stations along the line of the canal were ordered to make preparations for the arrival of the potentially destructive freshets: "Lockmasters will on the first signs of a freshet be prepared to open the waste weirs and pass it down as gradually as possible." After the "passing of the waters," lock gates and sluices were closed and stop-logs replaced in the weirs to "retain a good supply [of water] for the coming season."

With the water levels raised and the locks flooded, the Rideau was ready for another season. Throughout the ensuing months, the requirement that lockmasters "retain all the water they can" sorely taxed the abilities of the lock staff and the patience and ingenuity of the administration.

The onset of winter signalled the closing of the navigation season. All lock gates were opened in sequence and the works drained, lockmasters being instructed to "run off" the water as fast as possible without "damaging the works." With the locks drained, crews of carpenters, masons, and smiths undertook the repairs of the works throughout the winter.

Throughout the year, the activities at individual lock-stations were synchronized by constant volleys of "Canal Orders" emanating from Ottawa. They were admonished "to be careful not to let the water raise...beyond what is actually required for Navigation" in order to minimize the flooding of adjacent lands. Another was taken to task for "letting your sluices run all night without watching your level" and warned that "you will be held responsible for any damage that may occur."

Occasionally, the Orders could be quite peremptory: "Lockmasters will take every precaution to keep up the water in the Canal at their several stations and save all water possible having due regard to the safety of the works." This Order went on to warn all staff that the "report of any waste water through carelessness or inattention will be at once investigated and reported to the department." On another occasion, a lockmaster was castigated for holding back water "when it is needed below," and warned that "A little more judgement on the part of Lockmasters is to be expected in these matters and if that is wanting more competent men must be put in charge of stations."

Clearly, ensuring the diligence and vigilance of lockmasters was a vexatious problem for those charged with managing the hydrology of the Rideau. But other players in the system were even more difficult to control. Increasingly, throughout the Rideau watersheds, waters were being diverted from the waterway to serve as hydraulic power for various enterprises. Theoretically, there should have been no problem. Leases granted to mill-owners and the regulations for operating the Rideau were quite specific: "All Owners of Mills...shall stop or shut down their Gates when directed by the Superintendent...and not at any time to draw down the Level below high-water mark." Policing the activities of these various water-powered enterprises came to be on the main problems faced by those charged with the responsibility of controlling the waters of the Rideau.

Throughout the first four decades of the operation of the Rideau, maintaining water levels sufficient for navigation became increasingly difficult. The outcome was a better understanding of the complexities of managing an extensive and integrated hydrological system. The need to regulate water-levels and lockages resulted in efficient record keeping. Similarly, lock-stations were connected early by telegraph - and later telephone - communications to enhance their coordination. Of most importance, a system of integrated reservoir-lakes was developed.

Furthermore - given its mix of metropolitan, rural, and wilderness settings - the Rideau pioneered the incorporation of plural - and frequently conflicting - uses: transport, hydraulic power, urban utilities, recreation, habitat management, recreational aesthetics, historical heritage. No doubt the good Colonel would have been discombobulated by these challenges. All he had to do was design a system to get barges from Montreal to Lake Ontario!

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©1996- Ken W. Watson