Last Night in the People’s Chamber


Ron Bolin: Nov. 27, 2012

The COW meeting held last night in the City’s Council Chamber in the VICC saw a large and passionate attendance from those citizens of Nanaimo who are concerned about the recent announcement of a secret decision made by Council on Nov. 22, 2012, to remove the lower and middle dams in Colliery Dam Park.  This action was taken due to the danger of serious property damage and probable loss of life in the Harewood flood plain should one or both of the dams fail in an earthquake or overflow due to excess rainfall or snow melt.  This report followed another report from April of 2010 which was primarily limited to the danger to the dams from a large earthquake and was less detailed that the 2012 Associated Engineering report.

The Report signed off by Associated Engineering on September 12, 2012, contained the following overview and recommendations for handling the problem:

“The Middle and Lower Chase River Dams are located on the Chase River in the southern half of the City of Nanaimo. Both dams were constructed circa 1911, to provide reservoirs for the storage and withdrawal of wash water for the expanding coal mining industry in the Nanaimo area. After 1945, both dams were no longer used for water supply due to the cessation of coal mining in the area. In 1975, the two dams came under the ownership and control of the City of Nanaimo. Colliery Dams Park was established in the area around the dams, and the reservoirs and park are used for recreation, including hiking, some sport fishing, and passive activities.

Downstream of the Lower Dam, the Chase River ravine opens out into a generally flat floodplain, where the river channel is only slightly incised. This area extends roughly from Sixth Street to Eighth Street, north to south, and Howard Avenue to Park Avenue, west to east. Since the construction of the dams this area has urbanized and is now largely occupied by single family residential homes, but a large school (John Barsby Community High School) and a private daycare operation (Little Ferns Daycare) are also present only a short distance from the Chase River. Refer to Figure 1-1 (all figures are included in Appendix A) for an overview map of the study area. Crossings of the Chase River are located on, from upstream to downstream, Howard Avenue, Bruce Avenue, Seventh Street and Park Avenue.

Currently, both structures are classified as “Very High Consequence” under BC’s Dam Safety Regulation, due to the population present in the downstream floodplain areas. Previous reports have identified that neither dam meets the expected level of performance for flood or seismic safety, and both are considered to be at a level of risk outside the envelope of acceptable risk using generally applied standards (EBA, 2010).

Three general approaches are available to the City to address these issues:

  • Complete removal of the dams.
  • Partial mitigation of risk factors and acceptance of a higher degree of risk by the City’s stakeholders.
  • Extensive mitigation of risk factors to bring them into compliance with the BC Dam Safety Regulation and Canadian Dam Association’s Dam Safety Guidelines. (end quote)”

On October 22, 2012, City Council met in-camera (in secret) and made decisions which were then communicated to the Head of the Dam Safety Branch on Oct. 29, noting that, at their Oct. 22 meeting it had been decided by Council that:

“At its In-Camera meeting of October 22nd, 2012, City of Nanaimo Council passed resolutions to:

“direct Staff to:

(1)    Proceed with removal of the Middle and Lower Chase Dams, as soon as is reasonably practicable by:

  • Engaging and engineering consultant by direct award to provide design, cost estimates, and oversee a contractor for the dam decommissioning and land resoration process;
  • Obtaining the necessary approvals and permits to perform the work: and
  • Exploring options and costs for restoring this section of the Chase River Valley to a naturalized state in keeping with the existing Colliery Dam Park uses.”

The agenda for the open Council meeting which appeared on Thursday, Oct. 25 noted that:

“5(b) Ms. Susan Clift, Director of Engineering & Public Works and Mr. Bill

Sims, Manager of Water Resources to provide a presentation regarding

the Colliery Dams.

And the minutes of that meeting reported that:

5(b) Ms. Susan Clift, Director of Engineering & Public Works and Mr. Bill Sims, Manager of Water Resources provided a PowerPoint presentation regarding the removal and naturalization of the Lower and Middle Colliery Dams and advised of public open houses to be held on November 5 and 8, 2012.

Note the critical difference between the agenda and the minutes.  The announcement of the decision made on Oct. 22 was kept out of sight until the Oct. 29 meeting, thus preventing those who might have been interested or concerned from learning what it was that was going to be announced.

It was only at the meeting that the public learned that Council had made the decisions involved in the letter of Oct. 29 to the Dam Safety Branch.  Neither the agenda nor the minutes of the meeting of October 29 provide any discussion of the dams or the park and only the video provides any content on this matter to the public.  This underlines the critical importance of the video records of our Council and COW meetings. You can see the video at:  (Go to Presentations and, if you are in a hurry, move the slider to about 6 minutes into the video.)

Since that time there have been two open houses which emphasized how great Colliery Dam Park will be without the lakes (will the Park have to be renamed?)but avoided the presentation of the flood studies from the September 12 report by Associated Engineering.  There has also, and wisely, been a public information campaign in the flood plain areas which might be affected and an attempt at establishing a warning protocol.

What has not been adequately disclosed is credible evidence of why a decision was made to choose only one of the three alternative corrective safety measures which were offered by Associated Engineering rather than exploring all three via an RFP (Request for Proposals) process.  There are a number of rumours floating around about the reasons why the decision to remove the dams was made, apparently without adequate consideration of the alternatives. .  None of these hold more water than the cost estimates upon which Council seems to base its decisionas under questioning at the Nov. 26 COW meeting, City Staff admitted that the cost estimates which had been provided in defence of the decision to remove the dams were, at best, the result of conversations rather than serious plans and were thus “iffy”, even if their best guesses.

It remains to be seen whether the meeting which Council proposed last night is to be in any way actionable given the City’s notice to the Dam Safety Branch or merely a sop during which Staff will attempt to advise these citizens of how well they have handled things.  Councillor Bestwick was correct last night to try to clarify the nature of this proposed meeting, but the issue was voted back into ambiguity.  One can only hope that this meeting will also be attended by some Councillors and some reporters from the news media.

Hopefully the City will at some point have some substantiated costs for the alternatives available to remedy this serious and long standing problem which will allow citizens to determine which they are willing to pay for.