British Columbia

Dam-safety issues doom island lake, raising concerns over groundwater, wildlife

The decision to dismantle a dam and drain a small lake on Pender Island has alarmed residents, who want more say in the future of a protected area that provides local drinking water and a home for birds and wetland animals.

Pender Island residents weren't consulted about fate of Gardom Pond, trustee says

Gardom Pond reflects the green in its mirror-like waters. Excavators have begun work on decommissioning a 40-year-old dam due to safety concerns. (Ben McConchie/Islands Trust)

The decision to dismantle a dam and drain a small lake on Pender Island has alarmed residents, who want more say in the future of a protected area that provides local drinking water and a home for birds and wetland animals.

Excavators have already begun work on Gardom Pond's 40-year-old dam, with the aim of draining most of its water in order to prevent potential flooding or property damage downstream, according to the Capital Regional District (CRD).

The dam has been at the centre of a decades-long debate between the properties deemed legally responsible for its maintenance, and the district.

The work on removing the dam begins as Pender Island begins a groundwater survey due to concerns about the declining aquifer on the island.

"We are pretty alarmed," said Ken Hancock, a former island trustee.

North Pender Island residents say the park around Gardom Pond is home to red-winged black birds and wetland creatures. (Ben McConchie)

The pond, part of a park maintained by Pender Island Parks and Recreation Commission, is a home for nesting red-winged blackbirds and other wetland creatures.

It also provides drinking water and firefighting resources for nearby properties. 

Without the dam, 82 per cent of the water in the pond — around 2.5 million gallons — will be drained.

But the CRD says that the dam must either be upgraded or dismantled.

"This is a privately held dam by owners and has been deemed unsafe," said Andy Orr, a senior manager with the district in an email.

Five houses were demolished, two others damaged and several farms destroyed when an aging dam near Oliver failed in 2010. The collapse sent a mass of water, mud, trees and other debris went crashing down a local hillside. (CBC)

'The tensions have been horrible'

In 2010, an 80-year-old reservoir dam failed near Oliver, B.C., destroying five homes and triggering a provincial review of other aging dams across the province.

A 2011 engineering study deemed the deteriorating dam at Gardom Pond a risk if damaged by an earthquake, according to the B.C. government.

That ramped up ongoing discussions about who was responsible for the dam. A decision needed to be made on the dam's future, and who would bear the cost of any work on the structure.

The six water-licence holders affected — several of them seniors — were told they could each be on the hook for either $50,000 to deconstruct the dam or $250,000 to upgrade it. 

Terry Chantler, 74, said he had no idea he'd be partly responsible for the dam when he bought his home in the early 1990s.

"I have been made extremely ill by this. The tensions have been horrible," said Chantler.

Gardom Pond park also provides drinking water for some Pender Island residents, and offers a resource for fighting fires. (Ben McConchie)

With the affected property owners telling the CRD and provincial officials that they couldn't afford to pay for the work — and some arguing it shouldn't be their burden to bear — authorities applied for grants to come to a compromise.

The CRD eventually got a $460,000 grant through the National Disaster Mitigation Program to tackle the Gardom Pond dam, but only on the condition that it was decommissioned.

Chantler is torn about the decision to destroy the dam. On the one hand, he won't bear part of the cost, but he and many others don't want to see the pond drained and the consequent effect on wildlife.

'This will turn into a swamp'

North Pender Island trustee Ben McConchie says other people on the island weren't consulted properly about removing the dam.

McConchie, who says Gardom Pond is part of a protected riparian area established by the Islands Trust, posted a live video on social media to sound the alarm as excavators began work on the dam.

"This will turn into a swamp ... It really is disappointing," said McConchie, who called for the groundwater study because of concerns about the island's water supply.

He's urging people to come forward and demand a community meeting to come up with other options.

In a statement, the B.C. Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development says it appreciates the residents' concerns, but believes the plan to decommission the dam is the "best solution" given the "significant risk to safety."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Yvette Brend is a Vancouver journalist. Yvette.Brend@cbc.ca or on Twitter or Instagram @ybrend

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