Saskatoon·Opinion

Saskatoon's weir has outlived its usefulness and should be removed

These days the weir has no particular use anymore, aside from being a silt trap. The day is coming that it is better just to tear it down.

Hydropower proposal proved inefficient

The day is coming to remove Saskatoon's weir, says Paul Van Pul. (Courtney Markewich/CBC)

The Saskatoon weir — in technical terms an "overflow dam" — was built in 1939 as a make-work project despite the fact that the Great Depression was pretty much over. 

That makes this concrete wall 80 years old  — and that age is showing.

When the dam was built, it was outside the built-up area of Saskatoon. 

These days the weir has no particular use anymore, aside from being a silt trap. The day is coming that it is better just to tear it down.

Obstructing the flow

Today, the weir is pretty much in the city centre.

The weir is an obstacle to the free use of the river, both for aquatic life and for humans looking to canoe, kayak and row. 

If Wanuskewin was to become a World Heritage Site, as proposed, it would be great to travel there on the historic river from the city centre by boat.

Reomving the weir would allow for more water recreation and the possibility of waterbuses to cut down on downtown traffic. (Trevor Bothorel/CBC)

Saskatoon's rapid growth means that commuting to a mainly pedestrian city centre will become rather stressful. It would be handy to use a waterbus to get downtown or to the university grounds. Many world cities along great rivers have embraced —and with success— this alternative way of public transport.

The Rotterdam Waterbus Commuter System currently uses 10 vessels and travels 33 km with 18 stops. There is ample room for bicycles to roll on and off. The Copenhagen Harbour Bus travels only 2 km far but has 6 stops and acts more as an inner city cross-river connector. We should examine creating a system of commuting on our river instead of building more bridges.

A Saskatoon System would be somewhere in between. For example, a waterbus could carry a maximum of 50 passengers at a cruise speed of 50 km/h. With a Park & Ride at the Circle Drive North Bridge, commuters could be downtown — or at the University of Saskatchewan — in seven minutes.

Our tranquil river might then need some stream improvement measures, as it does not have the flow it used to, but that would also allow us to incorporate a couple of year-round, riverside recreation areas. 

Who wouldn't want to walk barefoot through the sand along the shoreline and take a safe swim in the river in summer? Who wouldn't want to skate on the river ice in December?

Not an ideal place for hydropower

There is a proposal in front of Saskatoon's city council to integrate a small hydropower plant by raising the weir. It's part of a climate change action plan, which is a laudable goal.

The station would generate approximately 5.5 megawatts of renewable energy and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 21,120 tonnes, according to city estimates. 

Ten years ago, when the hydropower idea was conceived, the theoretical belief of our electrical engineers was simple: Since we have a (small) drop in water level at the weir, why not use it to produce some electricity? 

A rendering of the proposed hydropower operation for the Saskatoon weir. (Saskatoon.ca)

After spending almost $500,000 on pre-feasibility studies, the idea did not turn out to be as direct as anticipated. The dam would have to be drastically altered and raised.

It would require digging a 10 meter deep, 45-by-45 metre wide hole in the riverbed to accommodate the generators and turbines, all surrounded by lots of concrete. This would be quite expensive.

On top of it, studies have shown that there is not enough water in the river (anymore) to efficiently use it for power production at this specific location.

These days, the technological innovation in energy production is going so fast that we risk locking ourselves into a 19th century solution for at least the next four generations of Saskatoon citizens. If there is a viable soft alternative to a "hard" proposal, the city should float it.


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About the Author

Paul Van Pul is a Land Surveyor and author who has written extensively about the history and future of the Saskatoon weir.

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