October 12, 2011

Shand Dam provides huge recreation area

As published in The Erin Advocate

It's off the beaten path for many people, so unless you have a passion for boating, waterskiing, fishing, hunting or hiking, the Shand Dam may be an unfamiliar landmark.

Located just 5 minutes west of the Erin border, along County Road 18, the dam was completed in 1942, the first in Canada built solely for water conservation purposes. It prevents the Grand River from regularly flooding the communities of Fergus and Elora just downstream, and helps regulate the flow for Kitchener-Waterloo and Cambridge.

The dam is 640 metres long and 26 metres high and can hold back 64 million cubic metres of water in Belwood Lake. It was the first project for the agency that became the Grand River Conservation Authority (GRCA).

I joined a hike there recently with some friendly people from the Elora Cataract Trailway Association. They have monthly outings from May through December, and the next one is November 6, starting in Elora. Go to www.trailway.org for more details. The trail itself, a former rail roadway that crosses the dam, is co-owned by the GRCA and Credit Valley Conservation.

The lake level varies considerably, reaching a high point in the first week of June, then dropping gradually until late summer. In dry periods, more water evaporates from the lake than flows into it.

"We couldn't keep it full if we wanted to – it's not supposed to be here," said Derek Strub of the GRCA, who gave us a tour.

Water levels are measured at least twice a day. The floodgates can be opened wide to allow maximum water flow, even if it means flooding downstream. Water cannot be allowed to "overtop" the dam, since it could quickly erode the earth that supports it, causing a catastrophic collapse.

The raw data for river flows, and water levels for reservoirs such as Belwood Lake, Guelph Lake and Conestogo Lake (south of Drayton in west Wellington County) are posted on the GRCA website.

Some communities take drinking water from the river and discharge waste into it. Normally it is treated waste, but untreated waste does reach the river due to storm overflows. Sufficient water flow has to be maintained to dilute that discharge for the benefit of communities downstream.

The dam offers a fine view of the Grand River valley, and provides the GRCA with a valuable source of income since one of its chutes drives a year-round hydro-electric generator. It puts about 700 kilowatts per hour into the Ontario grid, enough to power at least 250 homes. A stairway on the dam face provides access to the base.

Belwood Lake is quite attractive, but it is an active recreation spot rather than a protected nature zone. Unlike Guelph Lake, motorized boating is allowed. The lake is 12 km long, including 347 private seasonal cottages, with the community of Belwood near the north end and the 1,348-hectare Belwood Lake Conservation Area to the south.

There is no charge if you just want to hike or cycle through on the rail trail, but for other activities, admission is $5.25 for those over 14, $2.75 for ages 6 to 14, and free for 5 and under.

There are 3.3 km of additional trails, a picnic area, and a one-acre spring-fed quarry with a sandy beach for swimming, including a shallow section for younger kids. Water quality is tested weekly in the summer, but there is no lifeguard patrol. The park is also home to the Belwood Lake Sailing Club.

Motorboats and ice fishing huts can be rented, and there are two public launch area. The lake is known for its pike, smallmouth bass and perch. Below the dam, the water is cool enough to support brown trout. There is a fishing pond for kids, stocked with rainbow trout and bass.

There are 243 hectares set aside for hunting deer, turkey and waterfowl, with a permit costing $15 a day or $120 for the season.

You can rent kayaks, but not canoes. I have found it better to paddle in the narrower upstream area of the lake where you can barely hear the jet-ski engines, and there is more chance of seeing wildlife such as heron.

Belwood is a day use area, so if you want to camp, check out Highland Pines, a private campground on the north shore. It is not far from the Belwood Transfer Station, where Erin residents now drop off their bulky or hazardous waste.