A photo posted to Facebook by Lynn Lepine shows vessels on the water outside Hay River, one of which was reported to have been stranded on a sandbar, in the summer of 2022.
If anything, it was the inevitability.
Certainly, no Hay River residents were surprised this week to learn that barges had become stranded in the channel leading into Great Slave Lake during their summer resupply trips.
The rash of Facebook comments that followed the news was more an outpouring of exasperation.
“But we don’t need dredging. LOL,” wrote Lynn Lepine, pointedly, as she shared a photo of an operation taking place to try to tow the stricken craft to safety.
The NWT government’s Department of Infrastructure confirmed to Cabin Radio on Thursday that multiple barges had been affected, ascribing the problem to the Hay River’s water level, which a spokesperson said had “dropped considerably in recent weeks.”
Barge shipping division MTS had “attempted to depart with two heavier barges,” the department stated, but the laden barges were “too deep for the channel.”
They were towed back to the MTS terminal and lightened “in order to get them out of the harbour,” the department’s statement continued. The last barge was expected to leave on Thursday night.
For years, Hay River community leaders, fishers and others with marine interests have called for the channel leading into Great Slave Lake to be dredged – a routine procedure carried out worldwide to remove build-up of sediment, but one that costs money and can come with environmental side effects.
Simply searching online for “Hay River” and “dredging” brings up a backlog of articles and documents stretching back a decade. In all of them, local politicians urge that dredging take place, yet little if any has occurred.
The problem is so long in the tooth – more than 30 people have spoken about it in the NWT Legislative Assembly alone – that a father and son, four years apart, each delivered precisely the same statement in the legislature to highlight the apparent inaction.
“The build-up of sediments in the port of Hay River has reached a critical level,” RJ Simpson said in 2016 and his father, Rocky, repeated in 2020, acknowledging he was stealing his son’s lines.
“The federal government used to dredge the waterways around Hay River and at points in the Mackenzie River. That program ended in the early 1990s, and virtually nothing has been done since. The result is that tugs are dragging barges through silt, boats are being damaged, and sport and commercial fishermen are finding it unsafe,” the Simpsons said.
“I am aware that dredging is the federal government’s responsibility as that has been the answer that previous ministers have provided over and over again. Regardless of whose responsibility it is, it is in our backyard, so, as far as I am concerned, it’s our problem and we have to do something about it.”
Barge sank in spring
Nothing appears to have happened.
Hay River fisher Shawn Buckley, joining the conversation on Facebook this week, wrote: “That channel is a hazard to get in and out of, even with minimal winds. Yes, it desperately needs dredging.”
Navigability is not helped by the fact another barge sank during the town’s spring flooding.
“It was probably dry docked and flood waters moved it into the river and it sank,” said Glenn Smith, the town’s senior administrator, speculating as to what took place.
“Probably a lot of silt has built on top of it. There are buoys around it. That’s probably a hazard that they want to be dealing with.”
The Department of Infrastructure acknowledged the issue, confirming the barge “was washed into the channel and sank” during the spring.
“Work with a contractor is under way to remove the barge out of the water,” the department stated.
On the broader issue of dredging, Smith said the flood risk to the town – catastrophically highlighted this year, with damages running to tens of millions of dollars – was not helped by the buildup of silt and sand in the river channel.
“There hasn’t been dredging activity for many years in Hay River. A lot of sand, a lot of silt,” he said.
“We’ve had a lot more coming down with recent years of high river levels, we’ve experienced a lot of turbidity even through our water treatment plant. Silt is a difficult one to manage.
“We don’t have the expertise here but at a territorial and federal level, it’s something where the town is hoping we can see more done – reviews and discussions to support that work, for economic and flood reasons.”
In 2020, then-minister Katrina Nokleby said an application had been made for federal funding to dredge the harbour. Not a word has been said since.
“I’m sure there are a lot of regulatory and economic reasons not to,” said Smith, “but certainly, when boats are getting stuck, it has to add to their operating costs.”
On Thursday, the Department of Infrastructure told Cabin Radio the interim solution is simply to sail where the sediment isn’t.
“The GNWT has been exploring options with other levels of government to improve the profile of the channel to facilitate operations,” the department wrote.
“MTS is currently altering operations and sailing in areas of the channel where the water levels are higher.”