The days of Yellowknife’s surface water lines seem numbered
If you are a well-tended garden in Yellowknife’s Old Town, drink in this coming summer. It might be your last enjoying an unlimited supply of water.
The City of Yellowknife has just foreshadowed an announcement that is likely to generate a response: after the summer of 2023, Old Town’s surface water lines are likely to be abandoned.
Residents of other Yellowknife districts might not even know what surface water lines are but, to Old Town residents, they’re a liquid lifeline in a length of garden hose.
As each spring turns to summer, people in Old Town and Ndılǫ – almost anyone living north of the intersection between Franklin Avenue and School Draw Avenue – move from trucked water to surface lines. Each household flips a valve or two and the city begins pumping mains water down hose lines that criss-cross streets and neighbourhoods. For the summer, those residents can enjoy as much water as they need, rather than relying on whatever a standard water tank can hold.
Other parts of the city aren’t like this. Much of Yellowknife receives piped water year round, meaning there’s never a threat of running out. Some areas are on trucked water all year, meaning those residents have learned to live within the limits of their tank and twice-weekly refills, garden or no garden (or pay for extra deliveries of water during growing season).
But Old Town residents are used to their summer switchover, and city staff know only too well that ending the use of surface water lines – which means trucked water all summer, a big shift if you normally enjoy a sprawling garden – may prove unpopular.
So why do it?
The city says maintaining the surface water line system has grown so cumbersome that the municipality can no longer cope.
News of the impending switch came at a meeting of city councillors and staff on Thursday, in which public works director Chris Greencorn walked council through how the system currently works – or doesn’t.
“Surface water lines is a unique situation, specific to one part of town. I would call it legacy infrastructure,” Greencorn said.
“It’s infrastructure that runs through yards, through places that we can’t get. We do our best to maintain it, but it’s failing.
“I’ve got the numbers in front of me: staff are spending almost 1,000 hours on surface water lines, and that’s a lot. It comes at a horrible time of the year. Everybody wants them at the end of May, June, and that’s when everything else is hitting us – water breaks, storm sewer flushing, street sweeping, we’re all systems go. To dedicate almost 1,000 hours of staff time to chase leaks around is getting harder to justify on our end.”
The city says so much time is needed because finding surface water line faults is extremely difficult.
Not only is the system already a haphazard network of tiny, vulnerable tubes that crack and tear in winter, but they are connected to each other through thousands of small valves that often fail.
One broken valve can ruin the water pressure for a neighbourhood, Greencorn said, and then you have to start searching for the valve in question. To make matters worse, he said, the name “surface water line” isn’t even accurate – many of them have ended up buried underground at this point, making the identification of faults or attempts at repair near-impossible.
“It’s taking us weeks to find problems,” Greencorn told councillors.
“Last year, it was one valve buried in someone’s yard. It was causing a major problem. We were fielding so many pressure complaints, pressures were dropping all through the surface water line system.”
City manager Sheila Bassi-Kellett is an Old Town resident who currently benefits from unlimited summer water. After Greencorn spoke, she said the system had to go.
“It’s not sustainable for us at all,” Bassi-Kellett said.
“It’s been a little bit of a perk to myself and my neighbours, I get that. But it’s not sustainable.”
‘We don’t have the staff’
Is trucked water the only alternative? The short answer, the city says, is yes.
The municipality estimates that connecting the whole of Old Town to its existing piped water network would cost, very roughly, $30 million. Mains pipes would have to be laid, many dozens of individual homes would have to be connected to those mains, and all the remaining finer touches of plumbing would have to happen, assuming land agreements could be signed to let any of this happen.
One councillor even suggested Inuvik-style utilidors – above-ground corridors for utility pipes – but those were similarly dismissed as there is almost no available land through which to run them.
Discussing more broadly whether it would ever be feasible to connect all of Yellowknife to piped water, Greencorn said the implications become daunting.
“Let’s say council gave me the $197 million that I need to do all of that,” he said, quoting a figure for the entire city, which would include other areas currently on trucked water.
“We don’t have the staff to maintain that. And if you gave me the staff to maintain that, I don’t have the shop space to put the equipment in to maintain it. So then I need a new City garage, right? So that increases our fleet, more garage space, more yard space, more, more, more, more.”
Greencorn concluded that this looks like the last year in which surface water lines are maintained by city staff.
“We are going to be moving away from servicing that, and we will do public outreach on that,” he said.
“We’ll maintain it this year for sure, and then probably look at moving away from it next summer.”
Surface lines that aren’t readily visible may be abandoned in place once the system is no longer maintained, Greencorn said. Those that are out in the open are likely to be removed.
Bassi-Kellett said councillors can expect to see a “go-forward plan” on the issue before final decisions are taken.