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Facing low water and Hay River evacuation, Norman Wells seeks a highway

Mayor Frank Pope of Norman Wells is seen in a still image taken from a town video
Mayor Frank Pope of Norman Wells is seen in a still image taken from a town video.

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“We’ve boats on the river and nobody to load them,” said Frank Pope, Mayor of Norman Wells, as he watched Hay River’s evacuation this month.

This year’s barging season in the Northwest Territories faces extraordinary challenges. Already struggling to cope with low water levels along the Mackenzie River, barges are now being held up because no staff are available to send them off.

Hay River, which was among five communities evacuated earlier this month, is the barging hub for most of the territory. Among people who had to flee the town for the second time due to wildfires this summer were workers for Marine Transportation Services, or MTS, which provides shipping services.

As a result, cargo and fuel shipments – normally departing Hay River each summer for communities along the Mackenzie River and in the Western Arctic – are delayed.

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“There are no workers there to load the barges,” said Pope, whose community is one of those reliant on barge shipments. “They were all evacuated.”

MTS has so far made two trips to Norman Wells and Tulita this summer, said Tracy St Denis, an assistant deputy minister at the Department of Infrastructure.

St Denis said there are eight barges remaining in Hay River with cargo destined for the two communities.

“Our hope is that we’re going to work with the Town of Hay River, and the regional emergency management folks, when it’s safe to have those crews come back in,” she said.

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Currently, there is no date for Hay River residents and workers to return. The town has been under an evacuation order for more than two weeks, and an out-of-control wildfire continues to burn in the vicinity.

St Denis said plan A will involve having a small tug move the remaining barges onto a bigger tug. Plan B is sending shipments via winter road early next year.

Ramparts and the Northern Store, the two grocery stores in Norman Wells, fly in their produce a couple of times a week, Pope said. But the town gets its housing and building materials, as well as other supplies, by barge.

“Anything and everything comes in on the barges,” he said.

Norman Wells in June 2020. Sarah Pruys/Cabin Radio

He said if the barges don’t make it to Norman Wells, any critical items will likely be flown in, while those that are less urgent would be transported by winter road.

As an example, he said the town is currently performing maintenance on its water treatment plant, and some of the materials needed were expected to have already arrived by barge.

“If they don’t come in on the barge, then we will fly them in,” the mayor said. “Good, clean water, that’s our priority.”

Cargo had to be flown into Sachs Harbour late last year after a barge destined for the community was cancelled in October. The NWT government cited bad weather, a late start to the sailing season due to climate change, delayed buoy placement by the Canadian Coast Guard, spring flooding in Hay River and Inuvik, and suspected vandalism of a fuel hose.

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The NWT government also resorted to air freight in 2018 after barges for Kugluktuk, Cambridge Bay and Paulatuk were cancelled. The territory originally said impassable ice was to blame, then later said a bad fuel shipment had also caused a delay.

The entrance to an MTS facility in Hay River earlier this year. Ollie Williams/Cabin Radio

Evacuations aren’t the only issue affecting barges this year.

Water levels on the Mackenzie River have been low since the end of May, Pope said, and have already affected this year’s barging schedule.

“We normally have low water by the end of September and October,” he said. “This year is the first year it’s been this bad.”

St Denis said barge resupply will happen later this week for Inuvialuit communities such as Tuktoyaktuk, Sachs Harbour and Paulatuk. MTS had already said it would truck freight for those communities to Inuvik as a means of avoiding this summer’s low water issues farther upstream, then barge it from there.

Resupply for Fort Good Hope will happen later next week, weather permitting, St Denis said, again sailing from north of the community rather than south.

Private company Cooper Services also runs barges on the Mackenzie and Liard rivers. While company president Michael Cooper did not respond to a request for comment this week, Cooper said last month that low water and a shortage of qualified workers were both affecting its ability to reach communities.

‘We need the highway’

Pope says issues like low water, never mind the wildfires, illustrate the need for the territory to accelerate construction of an all-season road from Fort Simpson to Norman Wells.

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“There’s no road access, that’s our biggest problem,” he said. “We need the highway, we need all-season traffic up here … because if there are low water levels in future years, as the winter road season gets shorter, we’re going to be in trouble.”

The proposed route of the Mackenzie Valley Highway as seen on a GNWT map in April 2022
The proposed route of the Mackenzie Valley Highway, as seen in a GNWT map in April 2022.

The NWT government would like that road to happen, but there’s no telling if or when it will be built.

A plan to extend the Mackenzie Valley Highway from Wrigley to Norman Wells was first proposed in 1992, but the road has still not emerged, barring a couple of small projects in or near communities that the GNWT says would form part of the larger road.

Currently, the Department of Infrastructure is conducting its own assessment of the project as part of a broader environmental assessment. The territorial government anticipates submitting its report to the Mackenzie Valley Environmental Impact Review Board this fall.

The department said in an an email that it expects the environmental assessment and regulatory permitting processes to take up to three years.

If the project does eventually go ahead, construction of the Wrigley to Norman Wells section of the highway will take “several years to complete” – and “significant federal support will be required” to move the project into the construction phase.

The NWT government has previously estimated it needs approximately $700 million to build an all-season gravel highway for 321 km, connecting Tulita and Norman Wells to the rest of the territory. Inflation and supply chain crunches are likely to have already driven up that cost.

“We intend to prepare an updated construction cost estimate, which will inform discussions with Canada regarding construction funding opportunities,” the department stated.

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“What we’re saying is: accelerate the construction of that road. Get it built quickly for the Sahtu, that’s our only way,” said Pope.

“If it doesn’t come by river, doesn’t come by winter road, it has to be flown in at great expense.

“We are a tough region. Our five communities? We stick together, we go to work together. We’ll see what we can do ourselves … we’ll go on a serious lobby to try and get people understanding our problems up here.”