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23 January 2014

World Heritage Site Rideau Waterway failing its potential

An article by Don Butler in the Ottawa Citizen Jan.21, 2014 shows that once again the federal government (Parks Canada in this case) is postponing maintenance of its properties to make its balance sheet look good.  A  2012 asset review found that about 20% of canal’s built assets such as locks, canal walls, dams, weirs, bridges, and wharfs, were in poor or very poor condition. They found 4 canal assets in very poor condition, meaning they are “unsafe, unstable or unusable”. This is a red flag for the future existence of the canal.

Future taxpayers may (or may not) learn that putting off needed repairs to the Rideau Canal will come back to bite us (the taxpayers). Although Parks Canada indicated they plan to spend the same as last year, it's years of underspending on recommended maintenance levels has caused a gradual deterioration. The most worrying items on the asset review are swing bridges and dams in poor condition. If even one swing bridge or lock failed, boats would no longer be able to transit the canal, probably for some time.  The economic impact of these failures would be very high.

The worst nightmare would be a failed dam, resulting in a flash flood destroying structures, shoreline, crops, livestock and possibly killing people. You'd think the liability issue alone would grab the government's attention, since damages would obviously be caused by well-documented negligence to properly maintain the dams.

The Rideau Waterway had such potential 7 years ago when it was named a "UNESCO World Heritage Site". Just last spring, after Parks Canada shortened Rideau Canal hours, then canal lockage and mooring fees were frozen for 3 years while they figure out how to fund the canal without killing it. i.e. High fees result in boats going somewhere else, then a domino effect of economic problems to the local area and Parks Canada.

Getting the financing of the Rideau Waterway on a sustainable footing appears to be a subject the federal government has talked about, but it must "walk the walk". I don't blame Parks Canada for its lack of money, but let's face it, their management of heritage canals has not worked very well.  Poor maintenance of the Rideau Canal proves this. Reducing hours of operation, resulting in the lowest boat traffic number since record began proves this. Proposing ridiculous fee hikes most certainly proves this.

Although Parks Canada  announced a partnership to enhance the financial sustainability of the Rideau Canal, I think it's time to try a different governance model for the Rideau Canal, which would be capable of finding new ways to generate funds, keep user fees reasonable, lower costs without laying off canal workers, and keeping canal infrastructure in good repair. I pray the federal government finds a way to put the canal in the hands of people who understand its history, its heritage status, the economic importance to surrounding towns, the tourism gem it can become, and, most important, can solve the financial management challenge.

Excerpts from an Editorial in the Ottawa Citizen Jan23/2014:
"So what are we to make of the revelation that Parks Canada has not made needed repairs to the Rideau Canal to the tune of $104 million?
This is short-term thinking.
We Ottawans were all so proud when the Canal was named a UNESCO World Heritage site. It was fitting recognition for what was one of the great Canadian feats of the 19th century." ...
"The integrity of such a thing should be respected. It must be kept up and the money must be found for that exercise."