Friday, December 15, 2017

Charles Tolman explores the history of water in Victoria

September 22, 2015 by Pascale Archibald, student editor

Victoria has one of the most secure water systems in North America. It is also one of only five North American cities that actually controls its water supply’s entire watershed (Victoria gets its water from Sooke Lake).

Charles Tolman, a writer and retired academic, is more than happy to talk about those things. Tolman has written and contributed to over 50 books, most of them dealing with theoretical psychological issues. But his latest book, Bringing Water to Victoria, timelines the construction of Victoria’s water-supply system.

Tolman became interested in the history of Victoria’s water supply through family archives. Specifically, his interest stemmed from letters written by a cousin.

An archival photo of the Humpback reservoir, located in Sooke, upon completion in 1915 (photo provided).

An archival photo of the Humpback reservoir, located in Sooke, upon completion in 1915 (photo provided).

“I started reading through the letters and I was just dumbfounded,” says Tolman. “I have lived here most of my life and I did not know that this cousin of mine had ever been in Victoria. He explained how he was taking a job with the city to help build a water supply system in Sooke Lake.”

Tolman says letters from 1913 and 1915 were “kind of a sketchy history of the building of this water supply system.” From there, he was hooked.

“I was quite fascinated, so I looked into the rest of the papers and I found about 200 photos from this project,” he says. “I also found blueprints of the equipment that they built and, astonishingly, I found entire account sheets that detailed all the money they had spent on the project.”

Naturally, finding all of this information piqued Tolman’s interest in the project, and he went in search of more information, first at the City of Victoria and then in the provincial archives. At this point Tolman and his wife went on the Capital Regional District (CRD)’s annual watershed tour, where he met Peter Malone, then the manager of CRD water. It was while on this tour that Tolman learned just how secure Victoria’s water supply is.

“It’s really quite amazing,” says Tolman. “If you think of what’s going on now, all the cities that depend on snowpack have been in trouble. Ours depends on rain and we are still over 70 percent of capacity in the reservoir, even though we’ve had no rain for four months.”

There was a time, as Tolman explains, when Victoria faced some serious water issues. In the early 1900s there was a need to upgrade Victoria’s water supply, but there were few possibilities of where to go to get said water.

“The closest possible sources were Elk and Beaver Lake,” says Tolman. “Which was problematic right from the start, because the water from Elk Lake was very good but was being run through Beaver Lake, which at that time was simply a swamp, so the quality of the water was very poor.”

Goldstream was considered to be the best option, says Tolman; Sooke was thought of as too expensive. The trouble with the Goldstream proposal was the Esquimalt water company had already laid a claim on it. After losing a litigation attempt, Victoria’s only option was Sooke. A good thing, says Tolman.

“If Victoria had won and gone to Goldstream I don’t know where Victoria would be now,” says Tolman. “There wouldn’t have been enough water there to supply the city. In fact, if you put this all together, you realize that the Greater Victoria area has 360,000 residents, and we would never be this size if we had not gone to Sooke. It’s only because we went to Sooke that we had a sufficient water supply to allow the growth of the city.”

Tolman’s new book details a great majority of the photographs he found, along with a written historical account. Tolman says it’s important that when you turn on the tap and see clean, abundant water to remember that that was not always the case.

“We are so lucky,” says Tolman. “If we think of all the infrastructures that we absolutely need, water is right on top. We cannot survive without water. I think it’s a good idea that people, when they turn on the tap and see that water come out, they know where it comes from.”

Bringing Water to Victoria book launch
7:30 pm Thursday, September 24
Free, New Horizons, 230 Menzies Street

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