Residents below aging B.C. dam warned: in case of major earthquake, get out in 10 minutes or die
VANCOUVER — After deciding it would be too expensive to rebuild a 103-year-old dam built in one of the most collapse-prone areas of Canada, British Columbia's power utility has settled on a controversial plan: Bracing for a disastrous flood.
"[I]n a magnitude 9 earthquake, the people down below would have 10 or 15 minutes to get out of there, or I guess the bottom line is that they would all die," said Mike Hicks, municipal director for the area.
Since early December, BC Hydro has been busily transforming the area surrounding its Jordan River dam into a flood-ready no-man's-land.
The utility is pushing to stop development in the future "inundation zone" and has successfully obtained a ban on overnight camping at a popular nearby park. It is also looking to install a warning siren to alert day-trippers if they are about to be swamped by several million litres of reservoir water.
Most contentious of all, the provincial utility offered to buy up 11 houses and businesses in the tiny community of Jordan River, a once-thriving resource town that would largely be flattened by a dam collapse.
Locals are uniformly outraged at the offer, even as they see the value of their homes being wiped out by the news.
"For just about everybody around here it's not a money thing; we don't want to move, fix your dam," said Doug Harvey, speaking to local television.
Mr. Hicks noted camping at Jordan River Regional Park was being shut down only four years after the municipal government spent $9.9-million to buy the land.
"If they're going to ask us to have no overnight camping, they should buy our park, simple as that," he said. "They sterilized Jordan River, and they're the ones responsible for this."
News of the looming dam collapse has also scuttled plans to turn the park over to the nearby Pacheedaht First Nation, who were to build a campground and interpretative centre.
Said Mr. Hicks, "That's all gone, too, with BC Hydro's announcement that they'll all be dead."
While the utility claims it cannot fix the dam, it has acknowledged there are ways the structure could be prevented from collapsing in an earthquake.
'I guess the bottom line is that they would all die'
BC Hydro could simply lower the water in the reservoir, but it said this would cause an electricity shortfall that could cost as much as $200-million to fix.
The dam could also be decommissioned, but this would also be "highly costly" and would risk flooding homes with spillover from an unregulated Jordan River.
The utility's dramatic plans for the area were fuelled by an alarming seismic study released this month showing the Jordan River dam, built in 1911, sits atop one of the most vulnerable parts of British Columbia and possibly the country.
When the Big One hits (an event that is statistically due for coastal B.C.), the dam will shake as much as three times harder than buildings in Downtown Vancouver.
The pressures are virtually guaranteed to rip apart the structure and kick off what has clinically been called an "uncontrolled release of upstream reservoir water." As the utility said in a statement, it was "not aware of any dams in the world" strong enough to straddle the Jordan River without collapsing.