On Oct. 21, 2013, one year after voting to decommission and remove the middle and lower Colliery dams, Nanaimo council approved a two-year process to develop options to leave the two structures standing.
The de facto position of city hall is now that the century-old dams will undergo engineering and construction work to bring them into compliance with provincial safety requirements.
A technical committee made up of engineering experts and representatives from the Snuneyuxw First Nation, the Colliery Dams Preservation Society and the city will be tasked with developing options to do just that.
The vote on Monday was a significant milestone for community members advocating for preservation of the structures. But it also ensures that the issue will remain a pressing concern for local officials seeking a final resolution to the issue.
One key aspect of the project is cost. Members of CDPS have remained skeptical of cost estimates obtained by the city. CDPS leader Jeff Solomon said Monday that his group believes the job can be done for under $8.6 million, a figure originally put forward to the city by a local contractor to replace the dams. But professional engineering estimates obtained by the city estimate the cost to taxpayers could be much higher: $23.6 million at the high end, and $13.1 million at the low end, according to an August report from consulting firm Klohn Crippen Berger.
City staff say they will report back to council with funding options during the 2014 to 2018 financial planning process.
In a timeline proposed by city staff, a referendum or other form of electoral assent for long-term borrowing to pay for the project would take place in November 2014 "if required," in the middle of local elections.
Solomon and CDPS are opposed to a referendum on the project. "It shouldn't come anywhere close to that situation," Solomon said after speaking to council Monday.
"We want to see steps taken to get this done. This has been ongoing for a long period of time," he added.
Solomon also said Snuneymuxw First Nation Chief Doug White has stated strong opposition to taking an eventual proposal for the dams to a referendum. White did not return calls from the Daily News by press time.
"I think if there's a goal to get this done and rehab the dams for a reasonable cost, then I think we'll achieve that," said Solomon.
The city has a variety of ways it can finance the dam project. It can draw from existing reserve funds, increase taxation, use short-term borrowing or employ some mix of three. The city can also pay for the project through long-term borrowing, although borrowing funds over a period longer than five years would require elector assent under the Community Charter. A total of $7 million has already been budgeted for work on the dams. Of that money, $2.5 million comes from reserves and $4.5 is from borrowing. The city has already spent approximately $850,000.
Mayor John Ruttan said he has asked city staff to prepare estimates on how the project would affect taxation if the cost of the project climbs to $10 million, $15 million or $20 million.
Despite objections from some people, Ruttan said a referendum might be unavoidable, although he hastened to add he is not recommending the measure. "If (the cost) is even $10 million, unless the public is prepared to take a very large tax increase, which I suggest they are not, then it goes beyond five years and to go beyond five years requires elector consent," Ruttan said.
"... It may be that there will be members of council that say, 'Look, let's face it, the most logical way to approach this is to do it by referendum, to get the public to say what they will or won't support,'" the mayor said.
"And I know the Colliery dam people don't want a referendum, and possibly first nations don't want a referendum, but you know, you can't have it both ways," he later added.
Colliery Dams timeline
Oct. 22, 2012 -Council votes in-camera to decommission and remove the middle and lower Colliery dams in summer 2013 and renaturalize the area.
Nov. 20, 2012 -Residents opposed to dams' removal hold first meeting at John Barsby Community School. 'Save the dams' group formed shortly after.
May 2, 2013 -City publishes cost estimates for replacing and/or remediating both dams. Estimates were obtained from Klohn Crippen Berger, with peer review from Hatch Ltd.
May 13, 2013 -Council votes 5-4 to remove both dams and begin steps to replace structures in 2014.
June 11, 2013 -Council votes 5-4 to put dam demolition out to tender.
July 5, 2013 -B.C. Supreme Court judge rejects city injunction application against public disruption of dam removal work.
July 9, 2013 -Snuneymuxw First Nation Chief Doug White makes presentation to council. Council approves 30-day delay of issuing tender to remove dams.
Aug. 7, 2013 -Council votes to cancel tender to remove dams; work begins on short-term risk mitigation.
Sept. 10, 2013 -Short-term risk mitigation plan approved
Oct. 22, 2013 -Council approves two-year remediation process for Colliery dams
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