Harewood rallies to save dams

An estimated 500 residents attend meeting to voice concerns over city plans to demolish two dams.

Harewood residents give a dam about their community.

An estimated 500 people jammed the gym at John Barsby Community Secondary School Tuesday night in an effort to sway city council’s decision to demolish two dams at Colliery Dam Park, a popular urban green space used for walking, fishing and swimming.

The dams have been deemed unsafe by the province’s Dam Safety Branch, which gave city officials until the end of this month to develop a plan. On Oct. 29, one week after deciding in camera to remove the dams and drain the existing lakes, council advised the public of its plan.

An inundation study performed by the city and province revealed that should a severe seismic or rainfall event occur, the 100-year-old dams could fail, likely resulting in the loss of human life.

Residents who attended the rally indicated they were willing to accept the risks if it meant keeping the park in its current state.

“An earthquake may or may not have an impact, who’s to say?” said Jeff Solomon, co-organizer of the rally. “We chose to live here because of access to special places. Colliery Dam Park is one of those special places.”

Geraldine Collins, a retired watershed engineer technologist, said her calculations tell her the risk of dam failure is minimal.

She said an earthquake strong enough to damage the dams is a one-in-2,475 year event, and that the dams have a 1.6-per cent chance of failing over the next 50 years. She added that resonance of the dams, not the size of an earthquake or distance from the epicentre, is more likely to determine its ability to remain intact during a seismic event.

Nanaimo Mayor John Ruttan attended the meeting but was not invited to speak. He was joined by councillors Bill McKay, Diana Johnstone, Ted Greves and Fred Pattje.

Ruttan called facing the crowd “not an overly pleasant experience” but said he felt it was important to be there.

“They were obviously very emotional and very attached to the Colliery dam,” said Ruttan. “We went there to listen and to hear what their thoughts were and to hear how concerned they were. But it remains that we’re doing this on the side of safety.”

City figures say the dams have a 40-per cent chance of failure over the next 50 years. Should they fail, loss of life is expected to be more than 80 people, pushing the risk rating, as far as the provincial government is concerned, to extreme. About $36 million in economic damage would also be sustained, said a report.

“We can’t discount that,” said Ruttan.

Several residents addressed the crowd, providing anecdotes of family memories in the park, as well as the dam’s historical, environmental, cultural and recreational importance to Harewood.

Tom Gray, a 40-year Harewood resident and retired roofer, said the lakes afforded him a chance to cool off after long days on hot rooftops.

“I could have lived anywhere in Nanaimo. I chose to live near Colliery Dam Park,” he said.