Uncertainty over the future of Springbank Dam may be on track to becoming one of the biggest election issues facing municipal politicians in 2018.
That’s when a joint environmental assessment on the dam and Back to the River is expected to be completed pending full Council approval following Tuesday’s endorsement at the committee level.
The Civic Works Committee voted 5-1 in favour of the combined EA, called the ‘One River’ plan. Mayor Matt Brown along with Councillors Jesse Helmer, Josh Morgan, Micheal van Holst and Maureen Cassidy voted in support. Councillor Anna Hopkins, citing concerns about the transparency of the combined EA, was the lone ‘no’ vote.
She was concerned that the process would be less transparent by including both projects in the same EA, but Mayor Matt Brown doesn’t think that will be an issue.
“The environmental assessment process, the master plan process, they essentially are very public and very open and very transparent by definition,” said Mayor Brown.
During the meeting, staffers said the combined EA would likely be finished in January of 2018. However, council will have the opportunity to decide a direction for the assessment at two points during the process. That could include choosing to decommission the dam.
“What this committee recommendation does, it will be considered by Council, but it allows us to consider every option that’s on the table,” said Brown. “It allows every voice in our community that wants to participate in an open process to do that as well. Ultimately we can make an evidence based decision, and move forward.”
Councillor Jesse Helmer can understand why some Londoners aren’t pleased with the slow pace of decision making.
“It’s clear to me that there are a lot of people in the community who have their minds made up already about what should happen with the dam, and I think in that kind of environment, the idea that, ‘oh, we’re going to do a study and we’re going to look at what’s going on,’ I think that can be frustrating regardless of whether you think the dam should be fixed or taken out,” said Helmer.
Councillor Helmer is leaning towards decommissioning the dam, the choice championed by First Nations communities and environmental scientists, but wants to see the EA before making a final decision.
“I’ve very reluctant and wary about the idea of having recreational dams, purposes just to manipulate the water level,” said Helmer. “I don’t think that that’s a great idea in general, but we have to look at the specifics of what’s happening in London, what are we doing and what do we want to do, what will the impacts be one way or the other before we come to a decision. Knowing that I have a preference in general, you know that’s not a good enough reason to make a decision on something so important for the city of London.”
Before the EA was even discussed, members of the committee went in camera for about an hour to seek legal advice from staff.
The combined EA plan must still be approved by full council.
If city politicians wind up eventually supporting a plan that keeps the dam in place, they’ll face plenty of opposition.
Chippewas of the Thames, Oneida Nation of the Thames, and Munsee Delaware First Nation communities have called on London to decommission the dam.
The reasons for fixing the dam hinge mostly on improving the recreational uses of the Thames River, such as canoeing, and improving the look of the area.
Since the ongoing legal battle was resolved, the World Wild Life Foundation and the Thames River Anglers Association have also called on the city not to fix the dam, allowing the river to flow naturally. The dam isn’t needed for flood control purposes.
The Springbank Dam has been inoperable since 2006 when it was left open for repairs after a flood in 2000, but complications led to a lengthy court battle. The dispute was resolved late last year when the city was awarded $3.77-million.