A river dredger on BC's Fraser River near the mouth of Steveston Harbour. Vismax/Dreamstime
The issue of dredging in Hay River’s harbour has been on the table for years, yet various branches of government continue to dodge responsibility and it’s unclear who will undertake the task.
The harbour is a critical part of the NWT’s transportation system. The port connects road and rail networks from the south to a marine transportation system that ferries cargo aboard barges to communities farther north.
Until the 1990s, the federal government undertook dredging operations in the harbour. The work – a routine operation in many waterways throughout the world – involves removing a build-up of sediment from the riverbed in order to provide safe passage to boats.
In the mid-1990s, however, federal cuts meant that Ottawa discontinued its dredging program and passed the responsibility on to port users.
Since then, little if any work has been done to remove sediment accumulating in channels near Hay River.
Barges are dragged through silt, boats are damaged, and fishers and mariners who have to navigate the shallow water feel unsafe. In August, two barges got stuck in the channel leading to Great Slave Lake.
“Over the years, it has become more and more urgent that we dredge,” said Kandis Jameson, the mayor of Hay River. “Water is only four feet deep in the channel right now.”
Local politicians have spent years urging territorial and federal governments to take action. In 2014, Robert Bouchard, then MLA for Hay River North, told the Legislative Assembly: “We need dredging in the Hay River now. Not soon, not later, now.”
Nearly a decade later, little has changed on the political front. No one wants to take responsibility for dredging, Jameson said, even as the situation has become increasingly pressing. Not only have barges become stuck in the channels, but locals suspect the lack of dredging may have contributed to catastrophic flooding the community experienced in May.
Beyond the consequences for the town, the build-up of sediment is a problem for communities that rely on the port’s marine transportation – a topic brought up at the NWT Association of Communities’ annual meeting in Yellowknife in September.
“What happens when we can’t get supplies to the communities in the North? Whose responsibility is that? And who’s going to pay for that?” Keith Dohey, Hay River’s deputy mayor, said at the meeting.
“When it comes right down to it, passing it on and washing your hands of it is not going to work. Because the day is coming that freight will not get out of that harbour.”
If dredging is important, why hasn’t it happened?
Hay River’s struggle with dredging goes back to the federal government’s decision to halt the work in the 1990s. As the CBC reported, the federal government reassigned the responsibility to port users and passed its dredging equipment on to the Town of Hay River.
But that equipment was too old to be useful by the time the town received it, according to Jack Rowe, Hay River’s mayor at the time. The equipment was from the 1950s, Rowe told Cabin Radio, and hadn’t been maintained for years. To recoup some value from the gear, the town sold it at auction and invested the funds in local infrastructure, he said.
Even though the federal government has stopped dredging, the harbour is a federal waterway. Jameson believes the responsibility still lies with the federal government. The town cannot afford to purchase and operate a dredge, she said – especially after the spring’s flood, which cost tens of millions of dollars in damages.
The territorial government similarly points to the federal government when asked who is responsible.
Laura Busch, senior communications officer for the GNWT’s Department of Infrastructure, said by email that “the Government of Canada has jurisdiction over the harbour” as well as “over Great Slave Lake and the mouths of all connecting waterways.”
Yet so far, trying to convince the federal government to take responsibility for dredging has been unsuccessful.
The NWT’s Liberal MP, Michael McLeod, says he has been trying to get the message across for years.
“We’ve had discussions with every fisheries minister since I got elected as the MP,” McLeod said, adding that Ottawa seems highly unlikely to handle the job itself.
“They certainly are not going to move back into a position where they do dredging themselves.”
McLeod thinks a different approach is needed and dredging is “something that the North is going to have to try to do themselves.”
Who is going to pay?
The lingering challenge, according to McLeod, is identifying funding to support a dredging project.
Based on surveys conducted by the federal government, the NWT’s Department of Infrastructure estimated about 50,000 cubic metres of mud and silt would have to be removed from the harbour as of 2016. According to Busch, the department’s spokesperson, past GNWT estimates used to lobby the federal government for funding placed the cost as high as $10 million.
Because Fisheries and Oceans Canada doesn’t appear to be willing to fund the work, McLeod plans to have discussions with federal ministers – such as those overseeing infrastructure, public safety, Indigenous services, and transportation – to identify departments that might be better-positioned to fund a dredging project.
Cabin Radio reached out to various federal departments to find out which might have funds that could be used for dredging.
Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Public Safety Canada, Transport Canada and Indigenous Services Canada either said they did not fund dredging or said another federal department was better placed to provide answers.
Infrastructure Canada was the only department to highlight potential avenues of funding, such as programs that offer support for adaptation, resilience and disaster mitigation projects. Municipal, regional or territorial governments have to submit applications to be considered for that funding.
So why is no one taking responsibility for much-needed dredging in Hay River?
“That’s a really good question,” said Dan Vandal, the federal minister of northern affairs, when asked during a trip to Yellowknife last week.
“I’ve committed to making some calls, talking to other ministers, and I’ll try to get a clear answer.”
Will dredging help mitigate the effects of climate change?
Discussions about dredging in Hay River often involve the topic of climate change.
In May, a nasty combination of weather and ice conditions led to record-high water levels in the Hay River basin, which caused devastating floods in the town.
Some of the town’s residents say dredging might mitigate similar situations in the future, but scraping sediment from the channels is not necessarily a silver bullet.
Bill Quinton, a professor in the department of geography and environmental studies at Wilfrid Laurier University who studies hydrology in cold regions, said no amount of dredging would have prevented what played out in the spring.
According to Quinton, the increase in the channel’s volume from dredging would be fairly small in comparison to the size of the area from which water flows into the river. Dredging also wouldn’t have changed the myriad factors that contributed to the flood, such as a deep snowpack and intense rainfall. The ice jams that blocked the river’s outlets may have occurred with or without dredging, too.
“Those factors, I think, overwhelm any dredging that would have happened,” Quinton said.
In some cases, dredging might actually increase the risk of ice jam floods, said Benoit Turcotte, a senior research professional at YukonU Research Centre who studies hydrology and climate change.
If an ice jam forms near the end of the channel, against the ice cover of Great Slave Lake, a dredged canal might allow more water to flow out of the area – below the ice – and help to avoid a flood.
But if an ice jam were situated farther upstream, a dredged channel below the ice might mean less water is pushing on the jam itself, allowing it to stick around for longer, Turcotte said. When engineers develop a plan for dredging in Hay River harbour, they’ll have to carefully consider this risk, he added.
Turcotte does, though, see ways in which dredging might help mitigate some aspects of climate change’s effects on the community.
Increasing the volume of river channels through dredging would theoretically reduce the risk of open-water floods, he said. The work could also improve issues stemming from a build-up of sediment, a problem to which climate change may be contributing. A combination of events, including extreme weather, melting permafrost, forest fires and unusually high water levels in Great Slave Lake, may mean that more sediment is reaching and settling near the town, he said.
Turcotte suggests that having a clear idea of what work needs to be done, and how often, might help weigh the benefits and costs of the operation. Although dredging has a cost, the consequences of not dredging may also be expensive, he said.
Finding out more about the situation in the harbour is something Jameson is working on. She has requested surveys and water reports from the area and similarly thinks that knowing the current situation, and demonstrating why dredging is needed, is the first step in moving forward.
“I don’t know what the solution is,” Jameson said. “But people have to come to the table, and we need to find one.”