Engineers seem to love rituals, but one unspoken engineering ritual that I love to partake in, is to view the greatest examples of engineering, great buildings, bridges, tunnels, canals and even sewer systems are all possible candidates worthy of reflection. But in my mind, and for many Civil Engineers, dams are an important pilgrimage ritual akin to a shrine on the side of the road, where one petitions the gods for safe travels – they may not be the purpose of the journey, but provide a suitable place for reflection. For Civil Engineers, the alchemy of earth, rock, steel and concrete formed by man to hold back and harness that most powerful force of nature, water; is an awesome sight to behold, worthy of photographing, inspiring the young and old to imagine the weight of the wall of water behind the stark grey walls, wondering at the cold, murky depths below the calm surface.

On a quiet day, the dam can seem tame. The moving parts are hidden away, only a faint hum or vibration may be evidence of the great transformation from potential to kinetic to electric energy taking place below your feet. Looking downstream, the flow of the river continues, thousands of cubic meters of water that have unwittingly aided in powering this computer.

The Spillway of Revelstoke Dam

But as the need to release water increases, the dam transforms from a tame animal into a furious unforgiving beast. Water, as though in slow motion, thunders down spillways, buildings vibrate and a mist hangs around the valley. The noise is deafening up close, and even from across the valley one can hardly imagine the power of the water being discharged.

This video is from 2012, and shows the first time in many years that BC Hydro had opened up the Revelstoke Dam spillways. The flow reached an estimated peak of 679.6 cubic metres per second, or roughly 10 per cent of Niagara Falls’ flow, for about three days, drawing crowds of locals and tourists alike.

Having moved to Revelstoke in the fall of last year, the dam has been closed to visitors all winter, just opening up for the May Long Weekend.

So, this weekend I was finally able to make my pilgrimage into the belly of the concrete beast, walking through the cool, tomb-like tunnels, ascending by elevator to the observation lookout perched on the crest of the concrete dam. From there, with a wide view of the Columbia River Valley, I was able to share with my wide-eyed kids the wonders of dams, rivers, structures, turbines and potential energy. I highly recommend the self guided tour that is available for the historic and educational components for children and adults alike.

We’ll be back to see Revelstoke Dam again, and I’m sure it won’t be the last dam we pilgrimage to as a family either.

For information about fees and opening hours – check out BC Hydro’s Revelstoke Dam page.


Published by Mike Thomas

Mike Thomas P.Eng. ENV SP, is the author of and Director of Engineering at the City of Revelstoke in the Interior of British Columbia, Canada.

5 replies on “Revelstoke Dam”

  1. Some years ago I read a fictional account of a dam giving way on the Columbia River (it could have been Revelstoke), and the the results of its effects down-river. I remember that Castlegar merited one line; something like “Castlegar was wiped out”.

    1. Janice,

      While working in the Kootenays, I did have the experience of participating in an emergency scenario involving a partial failure of the Revelstoke Dam. I can’t remember how many millions of litres per second the scenario was built on, (80 million Lps?), or why this scenario was chosen as somewhat plausible, but the impacts were massive. It meant that the Trail bridges were out, the low point on the road down before Waneta Mall in Trail was underwater, parts of Castlegar would have to be evacuated, as with just about all the residents on the lake between Nakusp and Castlegar. Even parts of Kootenay Lake would be evacuated, because there would be an unplanned hold of water on the Kootenay System to let the surge pass through Castlegar and Trail with as little impact as possible.

      While not entirely “wiped out” under that scenario, Castlegar and surrounding areas would be heavily affected.

        1. Alex, the emergency preparedness scenario I was part of several years ago would likely have seen flooding of the lower elevation dwellings around Revelstoke and down the Columbia, but I don’t remember any specifics for this area.

          A quote from one of BC Hydro’s safety experts:
          Throughout history dams have apparently performed well overall. However dams have periodically failed or suffered incidents throughout history. The causes of these failures and incidents have probably remained relatively similar over the ages, including major floods, piping, foundation or slope failures, human error, and deliberate acts of terrorism during wars.
          One would hope that in the six millennia between 4000 B.C. and 2000 A.D. the advances in science, technology and the role of government for the betterment of society have resulted in improved reliability and a reduced frequency of dam failure. A statistical review by Londe (1980) would suggest this to be true over the last century.

          It is an interesting paper on assessing and dealing with risk.

          Apparently during a public hearing in Revelstoke prior to the construction of the dam,
          “internationally famed engineer and authority on earth fill dams, Thomas F. Thompson said that none of the existing downstream dams have the spillway capacity to handle the runoff that could occur from failure of an upstream Columbia River dam: “The imposition of a possible flood on the order of a million cubic feet per second could result in a chain reaction of failures of dams that would represent a catastrophe of unprecedented magnitude.”

  2. Glad you included sewers as one of those constructions worthy of mention. The subject is, like most things considered icky, not on the table for discussion. And yet, moving human waste and unwanted liquids is extremely important to the way we live our lives. Further, we consider efficient management of sewage to be a marker of how “civilized” a culture or country can claim to be.

Comments are closed.