More than 400 people packing into John Barsby Community School signalled to Nanaimo city council that its decision to demolish the middle and lower Colliery dams was nowhere near final.
It was fall of 2012 and city council, acting on direction from the provincial dam safety branch, voted to demolish the century-old dams and return the park to its natural state. Reports indicated the dams were at risk of failure in the event of an earthquake or significant rainfall event, which would sweep through Harewood with the potential to kill upwards of 160 people.
But in 100 years the reservoirs behind the dams became a recreation spot and citizens were loath to see them go.
Opposition organized quickly, led by Jeff Solomon and the Colliery Dam Preservation Society, to challenge the reports put before city council. Public opposition led city council to vote to rebuild the dams at a future date once they’d been removed. With no guarantee that the dams would be rebuilt, opposition pressed on.
The decision to remove and rebuild the dams had Snuneymuxw First Nation Chief Doug White expressing concern over the potential damage to the fishery in the Chase River. In the 11th hour city council agreed to a 30-day consultation period to look at all the options surrounding the removal of the dams.
Eventually, the window to remove the dams this summer, when the water level was at its lowest, closed and forced city council to cancel tender contracts and begin risk mitigation by installing sirens, signs and notifying residents in the flood plain of the danger and the evacuation plan should the dams fail.
The City of Nanaimo is now focused on rehabilitating the dams in place, ensuring they are safe for future generations.
A committee of city staff members and representatives from the preservation society and Snuneymuxw First Nation will have input into the long-term strategy for the dams, which could take up to two years to complete. In the short term, the committee will review all engineering and environmental reports, dam structure and risk rating with the goal to create a long-term strategy to rebuild the dams.
If the risk to the dams cannot be mitigated in 2014, short-term alterations to the structure might be undertaken to reduce the risk of failure.
No cost has yet been attached to the process, which will run into several million dollars. Mayor John Ruttan has not ruled out a referendum to ask taxpayers directly whether they support a rehabilitation plan.
Close to $1 million has been spent so far.