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‘Do nothing’ not an option for Howson Dam

Wingham Lions members Richard Hall (left) and Greg Buchanan spoke to the Howson Bridge and Dam Committee on Jan. 22, voicing their support for the restoration of the aging dam and bridge. (Andrew Smith Photo)

Community groups share opposing views on ‘heart and soul’ of the community

WINGHAM – The debate over repairing or removing the Howson Dam remains split, as community groups recently shared their arguments on both sides of the matter.

The Howson Bridge and Dam Committee met on Jan. 22, with Wingham Lions Club members Richard Hall and Greg Buchanan speaking as the first delegation for the meeting. After meeting with the Lions Club in December, Hall said the club formed a position of restoring the Howson Dam. Hall said he envies communities like Wroxeter with a beautiful pond, and said that people are generally drawn to bodies of water.

“Most people in Wingham cannot afford a cottage, but a pond would make the benefits of a large body of water available for all of us in our community,” Hall said.
Buchanan said restoring the Howson Dam and pond would increase the recreation opportunities in town, and recalls swimming in the pond as a child, with other activities including canoeing, fishing, and kayaking.

“I’m sure if we were able to restore this dam a lot of these activities would come back,” Buchanan said. “Local people and people from out of town would once again enjoy that area if at all possible.”

The Howson Bridge and Dam are also historically significant to the community, with the river generating power for saw and feeds mills, and even hydro generation between the 1920s and 1940s.

“Wingham probably became a settlement because of the water power we could harness on the river,” Buchanan said. “The pond was an institution of Wingham before the dam was let go.”

The Musical Muskrat Festival would also benefit from a restored dam and pond, Buchanan said.

“If restoration were to take place with a larger pond and higher water levels, events like that could take place and bring people to our town,” Buchanan said.

Hall closed the delegation by committing the Lions Club to do its part if additional support was needed to restore the dam.

“If fundraising is required, as a fundraising group we would certainly do our part,” Hall said. “We believe in a very real way that the pond and dam are the heart and soul of our community.”

However, not everyone at the meeting was there to save the dam. Doug Kuyvenhoven, chair of the Wingham BIA followed as the next delegation, and said that at a Jan. 9 meeting, BIA members were brought up to speed on the report and gave their opinion to remove the dam.

“The attendees agreed that the most financially and environmentally responsible option is to decommission the dam, have it removed, and make the area aesthetically pleasing,” Kuyvenhoven said. “The BIA feels the costs to repair or replace the structure are far too expensive for any value that would be achieved.”

Committee member Andy McBride questioned Kuyvenhoven on the cost estimates and environmental responsibility information and where that had come from, but Kuyvenhoven was only able to point to a report by public works director Sean McGhee.

“I’m not dealing with facts Andy, I’m dealing with what I’ve heard through different sources,” Kuyvenhoven said. “I could be corrected, but my sense is that Maitland Valley Conservation is not keen on the dam for flood issues.”

Later in the meeting, engineer Peter White provided an overview of the existing structural concerns and the flow capacity of the Howson Dam, and offered some cost estimates on dam repair, including $8 million for a new concrete overflow weir, $5 million for an earth embankment and spillway structure, $2 million for the central spillway structure, and $3 million to restore the south spillway structure without a bridge, or another $1 million to add the bridge. When committee chair Kevin Falconer was asked how the figures compare to the committee’s own cost estimates, Falconer said none of the previous engineering studies have focused on cost.

“None of the engineering reports we’ve had have been based on cost, it’s been on condition,” he said. “We’ve never had a cost analysis done, so all of those are just pure speculation.”

The Howson Dam was built in 1921, and no notable work has been done between 1984 and 2015, leading to the closure of the Howson Bridge since 1999. While the committee has yet to form a recommendation to North Huron council, Falconer said that something has to be done.

“The new council has decided that ‘do nothing’ was not an option because of the condition of it, you can’t just have an asset deteriorating, you must have a plan,” he said.

The Howson Bridge and Dam Committee meets again Feb. 19 at 4 p.m.