Up the Gatineau! Selected Articles

The Gatineau Lakes Water Supply Project

Volume 19, page 43

Archie M. Pennie

In Ottawa, the summer of 1912 was marked by a serious outbreak of typhoid fever, resulting from contamination of the water supply which came from the Ottawa River. The City Fathers were pressured by the community to do something about improving the quality of the water supply.

Early in January 1913 a letter was sent to Lord Strathcona in London, England asking him to secure the services of the most eminent British water works engineer available. The request called for the engineer to come to Ottawa and to report as quickly as possible on the best method of securing a supply of pure water for the city.

Lord Strathcona acted with great haste and recommended the services of the firm of Sir Alex Binnie. Binnie wasted no time and by the 15th of February had arrived and made his preliminary report.


1. The Ottawa River, in our opinion, is unfit for domestic use in its present unpurified state. Moving the intake higher up the river might improve matters, but would not alter our settled conviction that this source of supply is unsafe in the absence of an approved process of purification. We are convinced that the up-river population is likely to increase rather than to decrease, and despite all arguments to the contrary we remain unconvinced that any rules and regulations can so control pollution in the future as to render the Ottawa river safe for domestic use in its unpurifed state. To eliminate the chief risks of these pollutions would entail the construction of intercepting sewers on both banks of the river for many miles above the town at an enormous cost, nor would the fulfilment of this project completely remove our objections to this source of supply.

2. Apart from its liability to sudden accidental pollution of a specific sort,the Ottawa river water is highly coloured and it would be a physical impossibility to render such a supply satisfactory without the aid of chemicals. Apart fiom the merits of the question we recognize that the use of chemicals is repugnant to a large proportion of the citizens of Ottawa.

3. Our difficulties in pronouncing on a permanent source of supply have been greatly increased owing to the apparent consumption of water per head of the population being vastly in excess of reasonable requirements. The system of distribution obviously requires a thorough investigation and the gross wastage of water not attributable to the consumer should receive immediate attention. At present the wastage would appear to amount to 75 per cent, of the total quantity pumped. In addition, we are strongly of the opinion that the climatic or other local conditions afford an insufficient excuse for any reckless waste of water on the part of consumers. It is essential to recognize that the supply of water per head of the population, hugely in excess of actual requirements, may involve the rejection on financial grounds of new schemes of water supply which otherwise appear to be eminently well suited for the needs of the city.

4. In considering schemes for a permanent supply we have ruled out unpurified river water altogether and have contrasted the lake sources of supply with Ottawa River water after efficient purification.

5. We have arrived at the conclusion that there is a bountiful supply of clear and wholesome lake water available for the needs of Ottawa for many years to come.

6. Subject to the engineering difficulties of bringing lake water to Ottawa not proving financially too onerous a burden to be borne, and assuming that the drainage area chosen for the purpose would be protected from all sources of human pollution, we have finally decided to recommend the ultimate abandonment of the Ottawa River as a source of supply and to advocate the choice of a virgin lake water.

The Gatineau lakes were the first choice and it was decided by Binnie and company to make a detailed survey of the lakes in the area. The lakes that held potential were: 31 Mile Lake and Lake Pemichangan and McGregor Lake. The surveys under normal conditions would have taken about two years since no reliable surveys had been made of the Gatineau lake district and very little data were available. The Dominion Geodetic Survey, however, put a large staff to work with the result that Binnie and company were able to get started in good time.

The reports were made on the basis of a water supply of 25 million gallons per day. It was estimated that this amount of water would serve the requirements of a population of 250,000 people; at the time the population of Ottawa was a little over 100,000 people.

After a detailed on-site survey of the Gatineau lakes, Binnie‘s choice was 31 Mile Lake and its watershed. He stated that the water was of exceptional quality and that there would never be a need to filter it. And he suggested that the supply was “one of the finest water sources in the world, unimpeachable on public health grounds, of excellent quality physically and chemically. It would ensure for Ottawa, a source of water immune from water-borne epidemic diseases, for example typhoid fever. It is tasteless, odourless, and practically free from turbidity, almost colourless and very soft“.

31 Mile Lake
31 Mile Lake (sketch by R.E. Tickle)

Since the water was so satisfactory and free from human pollution, it would not require filtration or further purification. The total area of the Pemichangan and 31 Mile Lake area, including a number of smaller lakes in the watershed is about 150 square miles. It was proposed to remove all permanent residents from the area, and create a reserve. No fishing, boating, shooting, working or camping parties would be allowed. It was recommended that all trees and vegetation should be removed from the area to be submerged in water to prevent the possible decomposition of organic matter that might foster the growth of algae. The slight amount of iron in the water and the low calcium salt levels were not, in Binnie's opinion, likely to cause problems in lead or iron pipes.

McGregor Lake was discounted as a source, principally because of the existing sources of human pollution and the difficulties of completely eliminating this problem. In addition, the physical and chemical properties of the water did not match up to those of 31 Mile Lake. Ottawa's medical officer of health, Dr. A.C. Houston, concurred in Binnie‘s choice and added the comments: “A water supply so pure as to require no purification is an almost priceless boon. The adoption of the proposed scheme would in my opinion place Ottawa in an absolutely safe position as regards epidemic Water-borne diseases particularly typhoid fever".

There are four lakes which form a chain stretching approximately north and south. At the north end is Mitchell Lake, a small lake which discharges through a narrow gorge at its outlet into the Gatineau River. It receives the total discharge from 31 Mile and Pemichangan lakes. The next in the chain toward Ottawa is 31 Mile and then, separated by a narrow neck of land is Pemichangan. At the south end of Pemichangan, crossing the height of land, is a small lake called Long Lake. It was proposed to build a dam at the outlet of Mitchell Lake and bring all lakes to the same level. The water height when all lakes were filled to operating level would be 570 feet above sea level; the elevation of Ottawa at Parliament Hill is 150 feet above sea level.

Gatineau Lakes project
Plan of proposed reservoir and route of water pipe for Gatineau Lakes project

A tunnel would connect the south end of Pemichangan with Long Lake and the aqueduct to Ottawa would start south from Long Lake. All these works would result in drastic changes to lake levels. Mitchell Lake would be raised by 47 feet, 31 Mile by 40 feet and Pemichangan by 18 feet. Owing to the enormous area of 31 Mile it would take five or six years before the level would even rise to that of Pemichangan. During this fill-up time, the Pemichangan watershed would provide sufficient water for the City of Ottawa.

After leaving the south end of Long Lake, the 54-inch diameter steel pipe would be buried to a minimum depth of nine feet to prevent freezing in wintertime. Running south, the line would pass through Ryanville and the Gatineau River was to be crossed about ll miles south of Long Lake by means of a bridge having a span of l50 feet. The pipe at this crossing would be insulated by sawdust or other similar material. After crossing the Gatineau, the pipe would proceed in a south-westerly direction joining the Canadian Pacific Railway right of way about half a mile south of Low. The pipe would follow the railroad from there as far as Chelsea. This part of the route presented many problems due to the peculiar terrain, so that quite a number of bridges, stream crossings and culverts would be required.

At Chelsea the pipe would leave the railroad and pass Old Chelsea to the site of a proposed reservoir which would be large enough to hold twelve days‘ supply. The pipe from the lake was to deliver 24 million gallons a day to the reservoir. From the reservoir, two pipes each 51 inches in diameter would deliver the water to Ottawa, crossing the Gatineau and Ottawa rivers by suspension bridges. The estimated cost of the whole project was $8 million.

The price of the proposal was rather hard for Ottawa's citizens and City Council to swallow. It was hotly debated, and an alternative to the Lakes Project was developed. This entailed a revamping of the Ottawa River and Lemieux pumping station, with a filtration and chlorinating plant to be built at a proposed cost of $2 million.

The debate raged back and forth and finally a plebiscite was approved. These were the questions on the ballot:

  1. Are you in favour of a change in the present water supply?
  2. Which of the two following schemes are you in favour of?
    (a) 31 Mile Lake as reported on by Sir Alex Binnie and Dr. Houston.
    (b) Ottawa River with mechanical filtration and treatment.

The plebiscite was held on 31st March, 1914, and the 31 Mile scheme was defeated 7544 to 6236.

Despite the result of the vote, all was not in the clear. The provincial Board of Health did not approve the project. However, the City appealed its decision and was successful.

Periodically, supporters of the 31 Mile Lake project kept trying to resuscitate the scheme, but failed. On the 31st March 1914, a cable was sent to Sir Alex Binnie advising him that there would be no more work on the project. The alternative scheme was adopted. It is still in service today.


1. Archives of the City of Ottawa (ACO): Minutes of Ottawa City Council, various, 1913-1914.
2. ACO: Report by Sir Alex Binnie on “Proposed New Water System for City of Ottawa", October 9, 1913.

List of articles - Volume 19