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1950s North York Water Crisis

By: Susan Goldenberg

North Yorkers resorted to drastic measures in the 1950s such as bathing their babies in ginger ale because of a severe water shortage. Year after year officials promised relief; it didn’t happen. “Summer after summer for nine years hoses dried up, and the grass and flowers burned,” Patricia Hart wrote in her book Pioneering In North York, published in 1968. “Families visited friends in Toronto or Scarborough to take a bath. A few cups of water were coaxed from the hot water tank to make morning coffee. Sewage was another problem. Thousands of septic tanks had to be installed.”

The problem was that unlike much of Toronto North York is landlocked with no access to Lake Ontario for regular water supply. It had to pay a surcharge for water obtained from other parts of the city. North York complained that it was underserviced and overcharged, a constant refrain for years that was ignored. In 1953 the city of Toronto and surrounding suburbs including North York amalgamated but continued to wrangle over water rates.

The situation was made worse by the enormous increase in population as young families flocked to North York where houses cost less. The population jumped from 45,783 in 1949 to 96,717 just three years later in 1952, to 148,258 in 1955, and 228,374 in 1959. There weren’t enough resources to handle the surge.

On February 27, 1956 North York Council stipulated that henceforth subdivision permits would be contingent on developers signing that they would install and pay for all their community’s services – paved roads, sewers, water mains, street lights, fire hydrants, and street signs. Even where septic tanks were permitted, subdividers were ordered to build sewage outlets to the street to be hooked up when sewer mains were completed. “This means the homeowner will be able to connect to a new sewer line for about $50 instead of the present cost of $450,” the Toronto Star wrote.

In May 1958 Metro agreed to increase North York’s water supply fivefold to 25 million gallons daily, which solved the problem.