Dam Safety FAQ

Image of aerial view of John Hart Generating Station

Answers to common questions about dam safety at BC Hydro

Get answers below to general questions about dam safety.

How many dams does BC Hydro maintain and operate in the province?

BC Hydro operates some of the largest dams in the world. Today, we maintain and operate 79 dams at 41 locations across British Columbia.

Are BC Hydro’s dams safe?

Yes, BC Hydro’s dams are safe and well managed.

A 2013 independent external audit by two international dam safety experts found BC Hydro has a strong dam safety program and a robust risk assessment process consistent with international best practices.

BC Hydro manages the safety of its hydro facilities through a comprehensive dam safety program that includes:

  • daily monitoring
  • weekly and semi-annual inspections
  • comprehensive reviews every 7 to 10 years

How does BC Hydro monitor the safety of its dams?

BC Hydro has a dam safety program that uses thousands of instruments to collect and report data automatically on the performance of our dams. The dams are visually checked weekly and receive more extensive inspections by qualified dam safety engineers twice a year.

BC Hydro submits annual reports to the Province of British Columbia and commissions independent reviews of the dams every 7 to 10 years.

Our dam management system goes through extensive external and internal reviews every five years. Our management system is also emulated by other jurisdictions in North America and around the world.

BC Hydro's dam safety program is based on provincial regulations, guidelines published by the Canadian Dam Association, and international best practices.

Is BC Hydro ready to deal with a large earthquake on the B.C. coast?

BC Hydro has a comprehensive emergency management program in place so our employees can respond to a major event, including the response coordination with all levels of government.

As a Crown Corporation, BC Hydro uses the B.C. Emergency Management System to manage its response to emergencies.

BC Hydro is always working to improve its processes in the event of a major emergency. This includes drills with employees to validate and reinforce the company’s procedures.

BC Hydro also conducts table-top and role-play sessions with provincial and local emergency management agencies to coordinate emergency procedures.

What is the seismic risk in British Columbia?

The risk of a major seismic event has always been present in British Columbia, particularly on Vancouver Island.

Canada gets approximately 4,000 earthquakes a year. More than half of these occur in British Columbia and adjoining areas. The Lower Mainland and Vancouver Island typically get about 400 earthquakes a year.

Are BC Hydro’s dams at greater risk with a larger magnitude earthquake?

Damage caused by an earthquake isn’t just about magnitude, it’s also about the proximity of a structure to the epicentre of the earthquake and the duration of the shaking.

The results of the Probabilistic Seismic Hazard Analysis gives BC Hydro a better understanding of the intensity of ground movements that could be expected at our facilities in the event of an earthquake.

The study confirms that in the Peace and Columbia regions of the province, where we have most of our generating capability, the risk of potential damage to our facilities has generally remained stable or decreased.

This latest information indicates that the seismic hazard at Jordan River, Campbell River and Bridge River is higher than previously understood.

What has BC Hydro done in the past to address seismic risks for its facilities?

BC Hydro has made considerable progress to improve the condition of its dam facilities over the past 10 years with major capital project upgrades. This includes spending:

  • $19 million to complete the Elsie Dam Safety Upgrade (Port Alberni) in 2004
  • $400 million on the province-wide Spillway Gates Program that started in 2005 to ensure equipment at our facilities can continue to operate reliably
  • $65 million to completely rebuild the Coquitlam Dam (completed in 2008)
  • $20 million on the Strathcona Dam intake tower project (2009-10)
  • $4 million on the John Hart North earth-fill dam project (2011)
  • $748 million will be spent on the Ruskin Dam and Powerhouse Upgrade project (on-going since 2012)

BC Hydro is also completing a multi-year seismic resiliency assessment to better understand risks and vulnerabilities within our transmission and distribution system in the event of a major earthquake.

Long-term capital plans to reduce potential impacts to the transmission and distribution system include:

  • $171 million on the Vancouver City Central Transmission project, which included building the new Mt. Pleasant substation and two new underground transmission lines
  • Initiatives on Vancouver Island for a major cable project between George Tripp and Horsey substations, and new substations at South Wellington and Buckley Bay
  • Launching the Downtown Vancouver Reinforcement project to improve the resiliency of the distribution system in Vancouver's downtown

What is BC Hydro doing to improve dam safety around the province?

BC Hydro has a long-term plan to help reduce the current potential downstream risks to people, property and infrastructure.

BC Hydro is investing $1.9 billion over the next 10 years in dam safety and seismic upgrades around B.C., including $700 million on Vancouver Island dam safety upgrade projects.

This is in addition to the $1 billion John Hart Generating Station Replacement project that will also address seismic concerns in the Campbell River area.

 

Fracking and dam safety

Hydraulic fracturing or "fracking" is a process used to extract natural gas from shale bedrock. It's currently practiced in northeast B.C. near Fort Nelson, Dawson Creek and Fort St. John.

Because fracking is happening in the northeast, some people have questioned if it puts BC Hydro's dams on the Peace River at risk. We caught up with our director of dam safety, Stephen Rigbey, to get some answers.

Does fracking cause earthquakes?

Stephen Rigbey: Yes, there are a number of studies and reports that link fracking to seismic activity, and this is something my team follows closely. 

Seismic events related to fracking cause a different type of ground motion than a large, naturally occurring earthquake. While it can be intense, the duration is very short.

Are BC Hydro's dams at risk due to fracking?

Stephen Rigbey: No. Fracking is not a direct threat to BC Hydro's dams. We have seismographs at all of our dams, and we have never recorded any seismic event related to fracking.

Our dams are built to withstand much larger ground motions associated with higher magnitude events that are much longer in duration. They could withstand events 10 to 100 times larger than those associated with fracking.

For example, our WAC Bennett dam is expected to withstand a one in 10,000 seismic event. Site C is being built to withstand a one in 10,000 seismic event.

How can BC Hydro ensure that fracking-related activities don't damage your dams?

Over the past several years, BC Hydro has been discussing and exchanging research on this topic with the BC Oil and Gas Commission. We are confident that the Commission is monitoring fracking and any associated seismic activity, and will restrict activities to manage risk.

We are continuing to work closely with the Commission. In fact, we have an understanding with them that there will be no new tenures within five kilometres of any BC Hydro dams.

Currently, there is no fracking activity near our dams.  If future activity related to the existing tenures is planned, we will work closely with the Commission to put restrictions in place to effectively manage any risk.

New knowledge is being gained about fracking constantly so it's important that we have resources committed to staying on top of the new research and information as it becomes available. We have an internal seismic expert that follows national and international research on this topic closely, and who liaises with experts in both Canada and the US.

How does BC Hydro ensure its dams are safe?

Stephen: Our highest responsibility at BC Hydro is public safety and that's why we maintain a strong dam safety program, which includes 24/7 instrumentation monitoring, weekly inspections, bi-annual engineering reports and regular external reviews of all our dams.

We have operated our 79 dams safely for decades – and it continues to be a top priority for us.

How well prepared is BC Hydro for a major earthquake?

We have an extensive program to ensure regular monitoring and thorough inspections of our dams so that we can continually understand the condition of our facilities, including those at Jordan River.

We work with emergency management agencies and key stakeholders on preparedness and response to all hazards. Our preparedness includes a strong emergency management program with response plans, training and ongoing exercises. Employees are required to learn and practice emergency protocols for earthquakes.

Are the dams safe right now, and what does that mean?

BC Hydro’s dams are safe and well managed. BC Hydro has an effective dam safety program that was confirmed in a 2013 independent external audit by two international experts.  The Jordan River Diversion Dam is considered to be one of the strongest dams in BC Hydro’s system.  The dam is not at risk unless a major earthquake (8 – 9 magnitude) occurs near Jordan River.

Was BC Hydro aware of any recent earthquake in our region in 2014?

Yes, in addition to BC Hydro’s monitoring program, we are also notified by Natural Resources Canada about all earthquakes in the region. There are an estimated 400 earthquakes on the B.C. coast every year, the vast majority of which are not felt by anyone.