Opponents to the city's proposal to remove the middle and lower Colliery dams this year warned officials of a summer of discontent. Instead, the city is preparing for a winter of watching and waiting, as the focus now turns to the long-term future of the structures.
Mayor John Ruttan and councillors are slated to vote Monday on a staff proposal to implement an early warning system, as well as monitor water levels at the dams during the winter months.
City officials have been working for weeks to develop the plan. City manager Ted Swabey said his team hopes to move forward "as quickly as possible" on a final solution for the dams. Consultation with Snuneymuxw First Nation and the public is already underway.
Swabey said he intends to have a proposal in front of council for consideration under the 2014 fiscal year. How the project would be financed is "an unknown at this point."
The city is looking at a range of possible options for the dams. Engineering firm Klohn Crippen Berger has presented the city with cost estimates and details for building new dams downstream from the existing structures, or replacing the lower and middle dams with a lower standard seismic design.
The short-term proposal on Monday builds on a previous emergency evacuation plan for the Harewood neighbourhood prepared last October, following a now-defunct motion to remove the dams and renaturalize the area.
If councillors endorse the strategy, city staff will implement electronic monitoring of water levels further up from the dams, as well as continue monitoring water levels at the dam spillways and seepage from the dams.
The city also recommends the installation of sirens in the area to warn residents of danger is dam failure becomes imminent.
Water resources manager Bill Sims said the city has kept an eye on water levels at the dams since last fall. He added that previous efforts to measure water levels during the past eight to 10 years was prevented by theft and vandalism of city equipment on site. Sims said periods of extreme rain can see water levels at the dams rise "very, very quickly."
"That's part of the concern, that these water levels rise very fast and it will be a challenge to respond quickly enough to be very effective," he said. That is why monitoring water levels is key, he added.
Colliery Dams Preservation Society leader Jeff Solomon said he is gathering feedback about the city's proposal, which he said has "merit." He added his group is pleased with that no construction is proposed on the dams in the short run. Coun. Bill McKay said he intends to support the plan.
"I really in my heart of hearts believe that those dams are in better condition than what we've been told," he said, later adding: "Because there are so many unknowns."
Engineering reports indicate the dams are seismically vulnerable. Mayor John Ruttan said putting in a system to alert residents of possible dam failure is "the only obvious choice left."
Ruttan voted with a majority on council to embark on a 30-day consultation period with SFN, which effectively delayed and prevented the city from removing the dams this summer, a step approved by council in May.
Ruttan admitted the possibility of dam failure - which engineers say could result in human casualties - is a nagging concern. "It bothers me," he said. "Unfortunately, there's so many aspects you can't look at in isolation," he said. The mayor cited possible civil disobedience over the removal of the dams as an example.
Coun. Ted Greves, the lone councillor who voted against delaying demolition of the dams this summer, said he is disappointed in the direction the city is moving. He pointed to growing costs associated with consultation and work on the project. "I'm surprised that the majority of taxpayers in Nanaimo aren't up in arms over this," he said.
Greves said he has endured criticism for his vote, but added he has no regrets.
"As far as I'm concerned, my duty is to the taxpayers of Nanaimo," he said.
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