Community Reacts to Dam Demolition

Photo by Jo-in-BC on flickr.

The Colliery Dam Park in Harewood is as old as its community and as beloved as it is old – as was indicated by the large turnout at a public meeting at John Barsby Secondary on November 20th. The meeting had been organized for citizens who want the City of Nanaimo to reverse or reconsider its decision to remove the middle and lower Colliery dams from the park this coming summer.

It was the age of the dams which City Council cited as the reason for its October 22nd decision to tear them down, drain the lakes which they contain, and to re-naturalize the area to its pre-industrial state. The decision followed a request by city engineers who had commissioned studies in recent years concerning the structural integrities of the dams. The studies concluded that, while the dams pose no immediate danger, in the event of an earthquake or heavy rainfall, there is a possibility that they might fail, a catastrophe which would inundate the south-end community of Harewood and John Barsby high school with floodwater, causing extensive property damage and almost certainly some loss of life.

The dams, which create the lakes within the park were built in 1910 by the Western Fuel Company as a means of storing water for washing coal and to supply miners, their horses, and homes with a source of water. Long since the dams ceased to be used for any industrial purposes, the forested lakeside environment which has grown around them has become a paragon of recreation for both visitors and long-time residents of the city.

It was this multi-generation tradition of spending time at the park either relaxing or exercising – alone, or with family and friends – which garnered the greatest sympathies from community members present at the Barsby meeting, many of whom live directly in the path of flooding should the dams fail.

Amongst concerns that city council was subversive in its decision, particularity in deciding to hold the October 22nd council session as a closed, in-camera meeting, the overarching concern among most present at the school forum was the council’s apparent lack of regard for the importance of a park to a community. Speakers’ comments to this effect ranged from reminiscences of swimming, fishing, and walking in the park over the years, to speculation into the future as to what source of nearby recreation, enjoyment, and community pride the people of Harewood, many of whom lack the disposable income to travel frequently to other locations of leisure, can expect to have with their park forever and so dramatically altered.

As concerned citizens packed the small high school gymnasium to capacity, it seemed that the prospect of re-naturalization of the park (which would result of the dams’ removal) was of little interest to community members when compared to the recreational offerings of the present reservoirs provided by the dams. The projected cost of $7 million to tear down the dams, over the city’s estimated $20 – $30 million price tag to replace or upgrade them didn’t succeed in justifying to residents the loss of what they view as a community treasure. Indeed, it is very likely that Nanaimo Mayor John Ruttan (who was present but silent at the meeting) and his council may face great opposition to their decision as the summer demolition date approaches, with one speaker even suggesting that he would camp out on the dams to prevent their destruction. Time will tell whether supporters of the dams will remain steadfast enough for the city to reconsider, or if the century-long chapter of Nanaimo’s first concrete structures will be ultimately determined to be over.

– By Jay