Extremely dry conditions in the Northwest Territories are wreaking havoc on both the land and its waterways.
Amid wildfires that have forced the evacuation of more than two-thirds of Northwest Territory residents, low water levels in the Mackenzie River have caused problems for barges that supply fuel and cargo to some northern communities.
“The water levels keep going down. It’s hard to operate,” said Michael Cooper, president of Cooper Services, which operates barges on the Mackenzie and Liard rivers.
“We’re almost to the point where we’re going to close here.”
Last month, hot and dry conditions caused “historically low water” which forced a detour of 4,000 kilometers for goods in transit. Rather than barge cargo up the Mackenzie River, NWT Shipping Services had to truck it down the Dempster Highway.
Cooper told CBC that current water levels are even lower than last month, adding that the barge season has been “terrible.”
In a statement Thursday morning, a spokesperson for NWT Shipping Services said water levels have been lower than normal in the Mackenzie River, with the ramparts south of Fort Good Hope particularly low.
In July, these low water levels forced MTS to move all cargo destined for Aklavik, Paulatuk, Sachs Harbour, Ulukhaktok, Kugluktuk and Fort Good Hope to Inuvik and Tuktoyaktuk.
In the Nunavut village on Cambridge Bay, persistently low water levels have made it difficult for NWT barges to reach the community for years, said managing director Jim MacEachern.
“In 2020, the Shipping Services stopped sending their barges here because of that,” he said.
Now the community receives barge supplies from BC and Quebec.
The City of Norman Wells is concerned about a similar future.
“I’ve been here for 40 years and this year is the lowest water level I’ve ever seen in the river,” said the city’s mayor, Frank Pope.
“This year we have a double whammy”
Pope said the community receives barges from a private Fort Simpson-based company, NWT, and Marine Transportation Services of Hay River.
Pope said shipments from Fort Simpson were delayed by a month due to low water levels.
The last shipment from the city, containing material to repair its water treatment plant, arrived on Tuesday. It would have cost the city $15,000 to airlift it, Pope said.
“We really depend on the barge system and I’m worried and scared for the future,” he said.
Barges sitting on Hay River after evacuation
Hay River residents were ordered to evacuate on August 13 due to wildfires; the second time the community has been ordered to flee since May.
MTS said the second evacuation delayed its plans to send cargo up the Mackenzie.
“There are still eight barges at MTS’s Hay River Terminal that are scheduled to deliver fuel and cargo to Tulita and Norman Wells. There is also some cargo left for Fort Good Hope at the terminal,” the MTS statement read.
“Due to the evacuation order at Hay River, all MTS [staff] they have left the community and will not return until I am safe. When personnel return and MTS operations resume, we will ship the fuel and cargo to Tulita and Norman Wells and truck the remaining cargo from Fort Good Hope up the Dempster Highway and then barge it to that community.
Pope said the evacuations mean there is no one to load the barges.
“We have a double whammy this year… It’s a bit of a mess.”
He said that before the imminent end of the season, Norman Wells expects two more barges, including one from Hay River. These shipments carry groceries, home construction items, and materials for the water treatment plant.
“But that can only happen if people are allowed to return to the Hay River to do the work. Our backup plan is winter road traffic,” Pope said.
Pope said the road infrastructure is not well equipped or accessible and “will get hit by the trucks that carry it.” He said there are very few year-round roads in the Mackenzie Valley and more are needed if barges are in crisis.
Pope said that if the water levels remain low and the barges cannot arrive before the end of the season, flying would be their only option.
“It would cost a [lot] of money.”