REPORT #1,143: Londoners may love their Thames River, but questions loom over the way the campaign to tie the Springbank Dam to a proposed project at the Forks of the Thames threaten to undo everything.
Thursday, March 10, 2016 – LondonOntario
Two things certain emerged from Tuesday night’s long, long public participation meeting and subsequent debate over the future of Springbank Dam on the Thames River in LondonOntario.
The first is many, many Londoners, despite varying degrees of interest over the years and regardless of their specific point of view about the recreational dam, care about the Thames River.
The second is a growing number of city councillors are becoming suspicious about the validity of information they are getting – or not – from the civic administration’s senior leadership.
So, where does that leave that damn dam?
Well for starters, it could both intensify and confuse the ongoing political argument. In turn that will make it more difficult to find a widely acceptable method of resolving the question – what Mayor Matt Brown (pro dam) and the administration (pro dam) both refer to as “a made in London decision,” whatever that means.
Certainly the civic administration’s preferred method of doing so is now in disrepute. That would see the fate of the dam tied directly to the future of Back to the River, the glitzy plan to re-energize the Forks of the Thames.
The administration argues each is dependent on the other. But, as more than one councillor pointed out Tuesday night, that simply isn’t true. The fate of the dam is dependent only upon the will of council. The future of Back to the River, on the other hand, might well be altered by what happens with the dam, but it certainly isn’t determined by it.
As Tanya Park, councillor for Ward 13, put it so well: “The staff report (on the dam) we received on this agenda is one of the most biased things I’ve ever read.”
And Phil Squire, councillor for Ward 6, was forced to remind John Lucas, perhaps unfairly forced into the role as the administration’s mouthpiece for the report, that “you didn’t answer my question.” Twice.
Of course, it was a difficult question for Mr. Lucas to answer with his boss’ boss in the room. That would be the artful dodger, City Manager Art Zuidema, who seldom speaks at council or committee meetings but often whispers into the ears of his minions who do, as he did Tuesday night during the debate.
The upshot of it all, just past midnight and after three hours of public comments and two hours of debate by council’s civic works committee, was a compromise motion that would see a master environmental assessment covering both the dam and the forks, subject to the ability of council to decommission the dam at any point in the process, and further subject to the administration providing a fulsome answer – including cost and time savings – to the advantages of a single environmental assessment over one for each.
There are enough votes to force two environmental assessments – which would be the right thing to do – when council next meets on March 22. Someone, though, needs to put the argument more clearly and simply to council than was done Tuesday night.
Obviously that will not be Mayor Brown, whose election promise to fix the dam is now driving the issue. Nor will it be the civic administration, which curiously almost seems desperate to see the two issues joined at the hip.
As for the public part of Tuesday’s gathering, the damn-the-dam side won narrowly on points but there were some well-argued positions both ways. Judging by audience reaction, two of the best opposed fixing the dam. There were also a number of worthy written submissions, which you can find here.
Chief Leslie White-eye, chief of the Chippewa of the Thames who hold land downstream from the dam under a treaty signed in 1796, noted it is a requirement of Canadian law to consult with First Nations on such issues. That was not done on previous dam projects.
“We've lived here for centuries and our rights are protected under constitutional law,” she said. “Our laws are just as relevant to the project as those of the province and federal governments.”
She also argued council needed to be looking at the big picture in relation to the dam and the river. “It’s time to put away our short-term goals for the river and think about the long-term future.”
Vicki Van Linden, a somewhat reluctant citizen activist, declared there’s no middle ground in the debate.
“This idea that the only way you can enjoy the natural world is to manipulate it, there is something wrong with that. I would say whenever you have a chance to leave nature alone that's the right choice. Let's just leave this river to all the beautiful creatures that actually need it.
“We can't financially afford this dam, or Back to the River. We're not allocating money to help poor people, were not building affordable housing, we're not dealing with flop houses. We're not a very good family here in London. When we got a windfall from London Hydro we packed it into a fund so we could decorate the river bank. We didn't put it into a fund to help people who live in absolute misery.”
Time will tell whether council was listening. Let’s hope so.
About that damn dam
When fully operational Springbank Dam backs up the Thames River for four months of the summer to create an eight kilometre pond. The civic administration says the resulting additional depth of water at the Forks of the Thames is about 18 inches.
Providing this recreational habitat for humans with small boats is the dam’s only purpose, and has been for more than 100 years. Early in this century it was wrecked by high water in a storm.
A new dam was built in 2005 at a cost of $6.8 million, some $2.8 million of which was paid by the provincial and federal governments;
A year later, while being tested, one gate malfunctioned and stuck and the dam has remained open ever since. The city subsequently sued the contractor and recently won a $3.775 million cash settlement. During a recent test, a second gate also malfunctioned, throwing into question the whole design of the existing mechanics.