British Columbia

Dangerous water surges, malfunctions found in Cleveland Dam's WorkSafeBC record

A North Vancouver artist and his 27-year-old son were fishing last Thursday on the Capilano River when a rush of water escaped the Cleveland dam upstream. It's believed a sudden 3.5-metre surge of water swept both men to their deaths.

North Vancouver man and his son are believed to have been swept to their deaths in a flood last week

Water flowing over the Cleveland Dam spillway in North Vancouver was down to a trickle on Monday after a sudden surge of water killed two anglers downstream on Oct. 1. (Yvette Brend/CBC News)

A North Vancouver artist and his 27-year-old son were fishing last Thursday on the Capilano River when a sudden 3.5-metre surge of water escaped the Cleveland Dam upstream and swept both men to their deaths.

While the father's body was found on Thursday, a search continues for his son's remains.

The men were in the group of five anglers who were swept away by a torrent of water released when the Cleveland Dam malfunctioned sending an icy deluge downstream. The others escaped on their own or were rescued.

Since then, Metro Vancouver announced the dam spillway will not be used again this winter. Commissioner Jerry Dobrovolny said that the level of the Capilano Lake reservoir would be lowered to below the spillway gate starting Monday night.

The Cleveland Dam, located in North Vancouver and built in 1954, holds back the 271-hectare man-made Capilano Lake. On Oct. 1, 2020, the dam unexpectedly opened during maintenance and water rushed down the Capilano River, killing a man. Another man is still missing. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press)

But there have been documented warnings that the dam could one day cause a death, and demands that the risk be assessed and fixed, as far back as 2002.

The dam had a history of mishaps and malfunctions, according to WorkSafe BC inspections and orders issued to the Greater Vancouver Regional District or GVRD, the former name of Metro Vancouver.

The dam built in 1954 had so many inadvertent and sudden water fluctuations that anglers warned each other to be wary of the water flow, according to Squamish Councillor Wilson Williams who grew up on the river.

Anglers fish along the banks of the Capilano River Oct. 2, one day after the Cleveland Dam released an unexpected rush of water that sent many people who had been fishing running for their lives. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Those warnings had a basis.

In a July 18, 2002. inspection report obtained by CBC through a Freedom of Information request, other Cleveland Dam incidents are listed.

On June 26, 2002, a sudden metre-high surge of water stranded four fishermen on a rapidly vanishing island in the middle of the river until they were rescued by a helicopter.

In another instance the same year, a valve that controls the operation of the dam's gate opened inadvertently when a film crew was working directly below the spillway. In that case the the safety board ruled that the GVRD had failed to ensure the health and safety of the workers and film crew who could have been injured or drowned, according to the inspection report.

The Workers' Compensation Board then ordered the GVRD to make the Cleveland Dam safer by year end.

By Feb of 2003 the GVRD reported that it had done a risk assessment and was studying recommendations to make the Cleveland Dam safer, but those didn't include an alarm.

A siren or alarm system was never installed because of concerns that the noise may annoy Glenmore and Grouse Woods residents who live less than 400 metres away, according to engineering reports at the time.

Swift water rescue technicians with the District of North Vancouver Fire Rescue Services help a woman who was caught on a sandbar in the Capilano River as water rushed by on both sides last week. (DNV Fire Rescue Services)

In North Shore News stories from 2003, Paul Archibald, administrator for GVRD systems operations in 2003, said that the GVRD "deeply regrets" the June 26 flooding and is committed to making sure it never happens again.

But in March of 2003 witnesses again described the "roar" of the water when a surge escaped the dam. Archibald then told reporters that a computer software program had malfunctioned causing the dam gate to let water escape into the Capilano River. He said that had also been the cause of the flood that stranded anglers in 2002.

But there had been other releases for different reasons — about four or five times that he could recall — since the 1950s.


Yvette Brend is a Vancouver journalist.

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