Skip to main content

The Globe and Mail

Complicated debate over dilapidated dams features surprising role reversal

There is a growing movement in North America to remove old, unsafe dams and restore watersheds to their natural state.

But it doesn't look like that idea is going to catch on in Nanaimo any time soon.

In the small, bustling city on southern Vancouver Island, a battle has broken out over the fate of two dams in Colliery Park.

Story continues below advertisement

The city wants to knock them down. Environmentalists want to save them.

"It's a complicated story," said Roblyn Hunter, a spokeswoman for a group that has been fighting to save the dams.

She agreed it is unusual to hear about people protesting in order to keep dams.

"It's happening because [Colliery Park] provides recreation and a wilderness setting that is unusual and really special," she said. "We grew up here. Our parents grew up here and it has been an amazing place to connect with nature that most people don't have in their communities."

The dams were built 102 years ago by a coal mining company. The reservoirs originally provided water for washing coal. But Colliery Park evolved into a beautiful place that wove its way into the heart of the city.

As the dams aged, however, they also became a ticking time bomb.

Alarmed by engineering reports that said the dams had become dangerously decrepit, council members decided to have the lower and middle Colliery dams demolished.

Story continues below advertisement

Mayor John Ruttan thought the project would be a good chance to restore the Chase River, which once had runs of wild coho and chum salmon throughout the system. Now salmon can only be found in the lower few kilometres below the dams.

"It could be made to look extremely attractive with proper landscaping and with the river shaped to create pools … this could be a fish-bearing river again," he said.

But that plan was abandoned when angry local residents mounted a strong lobbying effort to have the old dams replaced with new ones. Joining them is a group of environmental activists, Veterans of Clayoquot, who have been holding civil-disobedience workshops.

If heavy equipment moves in to demolish the dams this summer, as is planned, the group promises to get in the way.

So council wants to demolish dams – and environmentalists want to save them?

"That's correct," said Mr. Ruttan with a sigh. "I don't understand that."

Story continues below advertisement

Mr. Ruttan said he appreciates that people love the park, but engineers tell him the old structures could give way in an earthquake.

"There are 1,600 dams in British Columbia. And of all those dams, only two have an extreme rating. And those two dams are Colliery Number One and Colliery Number Two," said Mr. Ruttan. "If qualified people tell me there's a risk, how am I going to look the other way?"

Council member Diane Brennan said she thinks a fair, and safe compromise, is to remove the old dams this year and replace them with new dams next year.

Even this, however, has brought council under fire – with critics saying the dams shouldn't be touched until a rebuild program has been organized, that would allow the new structures to go up immediately, so the lakes wouldn't have to be drained.

Dave Cutts, a spokesman for Veterans of Clayoquot, said his group is ready to take to the woods to stop crews from demolishing the dams this summer.

"We do things in a way that nobody gets hurt. We are very polite. We don't raise our voice. We don't even sing off-key," he said.

Mr. Cutts said his group emerged from the anti-logging protests in Clayoquot Sound, 20 years ago, and they have been engaged in a number of protests since.

"We never lose," he boasted.

Ms. Brennan could only laugh when asked what it felt like to be cast as an anti-environmentalist for wanting to demolish dangerous dams.

"It's very frustrating … It's like we are in parallel universes," she said.

Report an error Licensing Options
About the Author
National correspondent

Mark Hume is a National Correspondent for The Globe and Mail, based in Vancouver, writing news and feature stories on a daily basis about his home province of British Columbia. His weekly column, which often challenges the orthodoxy on environmental issues, appears every Monday. More


The Globe invites you to share your views. Please stay on topic and be respectful to everyone. For more information on our commenting policies and how our community-based moderation works, please read our Community Guidelines and our Terms and Conditions.

We’ve made some technical updates to our commenting software. If you are experiencing any issues posting comments, simply log out and log back in.

Discussion loading… ✨

Combined Shape Created with Sketch.

Combined Shape Created with Sketch.

Thank you!

You are now subscribed to the newsletter at

You can unsubscribe from this newsletter or Globe promotions at any time by clicking the link at the bottom of the newsletter, or by emailing us at