On troubled pond: Pender residents fight move to drain water for dam safety

Terry Chantler says he has had endless sleepless nights over the past two decades — all because of a pond on his property that, he says, has fractured his small North Pender Island community and made it impossible for him and his wife to sell their home.

The pond in question is on the verge of being drained of more than 80 per cent of its water due to safety concerns that the dam at one end could break and damage the handful of properties downstream. But Chantler and most of his neighbours are fighting to keep the water body, the fourth largest on the island. They want the dam — built in the 1970s as a water supply for cabins in the area — to be reinforced instead.

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Gardom Pond borders a park and holds about 11 million litres of water that will drop to less than two million litres if plans to drain it this summer go ahead. In an area where water scarcity is a growing concern, residents are worried that draining the pond could affect the availability of drinking water and significantly reduce an important firefighting resource in one of the most fire-prone parts of the island. On Friday, the province elevated the drought rating for Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands to level 3 (the highest is level 4) and is asking residents to conserve water.

Machines to drain the pond are already on site and trees are coming down around the water, Chantler said. According to the Capital Regional District’s website, the work is expected to take place from June to September. It’s all happening despite support in the community to keep the pond, and a lack of public consultation, something Chantler said was promised to him in legal documents as one of six water-licence holders for the pond. Such licences are generally required for anyone in B.C. who owns property that contains access to surface water. The other licences are held by the CRD, the developer of the subdivision where the pond is located and three other residents of the subdivision.

From the outside, the story seems simple, Chantler said, because he and the other licence holders signed off on the decision to drain the pond. But Chantler said they had little choice.

Licence holders were told they were financially responsible for the dam, deemed by the province in 1997 to carry a “high consequence” of damage to downstream properties and inhabitants if it were to fail.

Their options were to fork out $1.5 million — $250,000 each — to reinforce it, or spend $50,000 each to drain the pond. Since signing on to decommission the dam, the CRD has secured a federal grant for nearly $500,000 to drain the pond and decommission the dam.

‘We’re pensioners,” Chantler said. “None of us had that kind of money.”

Chantler alleges that when he asked at a meeting of licence holders in July 2015 how they were supposed to pay for either option, he was threatened by the CRD.

Diana Lokken, then general manager of finance and technology at the regional district, “looked us straight in the eye and she said: ‘We will come after your houses.’ Those were her exact words,” Chantler said.

Lokken is no longer at the CRD. She said she remembers being in the room at the meeting. As the person responsible for risk management, Lokken said she was discussing what the potential consequences would be to licence holders if they didn’t take action to reduce the risk the dam posed. She said she would have said it was possible they could end up losing their homes if downstream residents sued them in the event of a dam break.

Despite wanting to maintain the pond, Chantler said he agreed in November 2017 to drain it, because he was promised public consultation and was confident the community would oppose the decision.

That consultation never happened, he said. “The scary thing about all this is I wasn’t supposed to talk to media,” Chantler said. “I wasn’t supposed to do anything which, according to the CRD, could jeopardize the grant from the federal government and could suddenly make me face a $250,000 deal again. So I’m risking that by talking to you.”

Mark Benson, who lives near the pond, said he, too, has been told by the CRD not to talk about the issue to media, or he could risk losing the federal grant money, worth $491,000, for his neighbours. He said he held off on speaking publicly because he was waiting for public consultation that never came.

The CRD’s senior manager of corporate communications, Andy Orr, said he is not aware of any regional district representative telling anyone not to speak to the media. Orr said the CRD has no plans to delay the decommissioning.

The dilemma stems from a mistake, Chantler said, that the provincial government made when he bought his property in 1992. He said he and other lot buyers were never told they needed to get water licences for the pond. It wasn’t until two years later that the issue came up.

In 1994, Chantler said, he was told by the province that he and the other lot owners would need to get water licences or the province would decommission the dam, which provided the only road access to Chantler’s property. He said they were told that as long as they maintained the dam, they would not be liable for anything that happened to it.

Chantler said he has been given conflicting explanations by the provincial government as to why they weren’t told about the need for water licences until two years after they had purchased their properties. He said he hasn’t been able to get a straight answer from a government representative, despite asking for years.

“This is abuse. It really is abuse,” Chantler said. “When you ask legitimate facts- and evidence-based questions of government and they refuse to answer — essentially what they’ve said is: ‘Take us to court or shut up.’ ”

Ben McConchie, a trustee for North Pender Islands Trust, the local-government body responsible for preserving and protecting the environment of islands in the Salish Sea, said he is looking into legal options to postpone the draining.

Like many residents, he’s concerned about drastically reducing the pond’s water level, given the scarcity of water and increasing threat of wildfires. He wants the public to be properly consulted on an issue that has been weighing on residents for years.

“It’s hard to see these people crying in my office,” he said.

McConchie has called for an island-wide major groundwater study, which was approved on Wednesday. The results from the study are expected next year, and McConchie would like the pond-draining project halted until the impact on groundwater is clear.

Freshwater specialist William Shulba is undertaking the study for the Islands Trust. Shulba said there has been no detailed hydrogeologic study of Gardom Pond to his knowledge, which means the relationship between the pond’s water levels and the water in nearby wells is unknown.

The pond-draining project’s environmental impact assessment, obtained from the CRD, does not discuss the connection between Gardom Pond and wells.

Benson is deeply concerned about plans to drain the pond. He said he relies on his well water to maintain his garden, which feeds his family, and he doesn’t know what he would do if his well was compromised.

He said he would likely have to set up an expensive rainwater-collection system, which could cost tens of thousands of dollars.

Benson thinks everyone would be happy if the province would just reinforce the dam, but the $1.5-million estimate to fix the dam made several years ago is an obstacle. According to both Benson and Chantler, several experts have inspected the dam recently and concluded it would be possible to reinforce the dam for less than the $491,000 federal grant to drain the pond.

John Baldwin, a dam safety officer with the Forests Ministry, has been overseeing the dam at Gardom Pond since about 2003. He was unable to comment on the initial issuing of water licences, because it occurred before he took on the role.

Baldwin said dams are by nature a hazard, and while it’s hard to pinpoint what the potential consequences would be if this dam broke, it could damage several houses downstream.

“There could be some loss of life, depending on when it happens,” he said. “Are people in the homes when the thing gives way?”

Chantler said the issue has fragmented the community, with neighbours downstream of the pond feeling as if those trying to save the pond don’t care about the risks they face, and others believing he and other licence holders have made the decision to decommission the dam behind closed doors.

Chantler wants to be clear that he has always wanted the public to be consulted, and that he doesn’t want to put his neighbours at risk. What he would like is an affordable way to reinforce the dam and maintain the pond.

For Chantler, the saga has been a source of stress for more than two decades — stress the prostate-cancer survivor believes has affected his health. His neighbours, a couple who were also water-licence holders, both died of cancer in the past couple of years.

“We have had unlimiting stress since 1994,” Chantler said. “My health has gone to hell.”

regan-elliott@timescolonist.com

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