Joe Lacorne looks out over the Mackenzie River, a familiar sight for many decades. But the river doesn’t seem normal.
“The water level is really low this year,” he said. “It’s difficult to move with even boats.”
Lacorne, who has lived in the small village of Fort Providence, NWT, for about 60 years, said he watches over the river for his community.
“Spring time, [it’s] “It’s always like a big flurry of snow melting and that’s when the water is high,” he said.
“But during the summer we lost water, very quickly. The water disappeared.”
Historically low levels
One of Canada’s longest rivers, the Mackenzie flows from Great Slave Lake through the Northwest Territories before finally emptying into the Arctic Ocean.
It is used as a highway to transport goods to remote communities along the river and in the Inuvialuit settlement region of the high Arctic.
But early this season, territorial officials knew things wouldn’t be business as usual.
“What we’ve noticed since the spring is that water levels are much lower than they have been historically,” said Tracy St. Denis, assistant deputy minister of programs and services at the department of territorial infrastructure.
“The additional heat and lack of precipitation obviously didn’t help us,” he said.
Starting in May, temperatures in the Northwest Territories began to rise well above normal and remained high throughout the summer, including a new record of 38 C set in Norman Wells, not far from the Arctic Circle.
“Not being a scientist, it’s no surprise to residents of the Northwest Territories, or even people across Canada, that Canada is seeing, from coast to coast, the impacts of climate change.”
A Maritime Transportation Service tugboat, operated by the territory, ran aground due to low water levels earlier this month near Fort Providence, which is located along the Mackenzie, approximately 315 kilometers southwest of Yellowknife.
The boat was intended to help transport goods upriver, but that trip was canceled, St. Denis said.
The Coast Guard was alerted to the situation on September 8 and sent a boat to assist. But it also “experienced a stranding” due to “the challenging nature of the stranding location and river conditions,” according to Sam Di Lorenzo, spokesperson for Fisheries and Oceans Canada.
The Coast Guard vessel was able to free itself. The tugboat was freed after many days, with the help of another vessel.
Early in the season, the department took steps to ensure goods could still reach northern communities, such as trucking goods out of the territory and then north on the Dempster Highway, an unpaved road, and shipping goods from the west coast northward and around Alaska, also known as the “overkill” method.
The costs associated with alternative routes for goods are not being passed on to customers, St. Denis said, adding that it is premature to say whether that could change in the near future.
In the meantime, the department will take time this winter to evaluate the situation and make sure they are not caught off guard should the situation repeat itself next year.
“I think the message going forward is that the operating environment has changed and will continue to change and communication with our customers will be key,” he said.
‘River was my playground’
The river holds a special place in the heart of Michael McLeod, the North West Liberal MP who was born in Fort Providence.
“The Mackenzie River was my playground, so the water levels are something we’re pretty familiar with,” he said.
He’s been keeping an eye on how this year develops.
“We didn’t have much runoff this year. Then the snow melted and disappeared into the ground; it was absorbed into the soil, so very little of it went into the lakes, into the streams, into the creeks that feed the Mackenzie River.,” he said.
“And over the summer, we haven’t had much rain.”
Concerned remote communities
Norman Wells Mayor Frank Pope said the community of about 750 people receives goods such as groceries, supplies and building materials through the Mackenzie between the end of June and the end of September.
“North of us, between Norman Wells and Fort Good Hope, we have a couple of rapids,” he said. “We know that at the end of the season these rapids are impassable for larger boats. And this year, these rapids were impassable in the middle of summer, about a month and a half earlier than usual.
“This is a very, very unusual year.”
Pope said he is worried about next year and wonders if water levels will return to normal or if this year is a harbinger of what the future will hold.
If the barges cannot get through, the village has to resort to air freight. And that is expensive.
“All [that] come in here it’s costing us a lot of money and a lot of people here are on fixed incomes. “We have a fairly large elderly population here that lives on pensions,” Pope said.