“If we don’t get rain in the area in the next two weeks, we probably are going to see the ferry temporarily shut down,” said Whelly. “I’ll base that on my own experience, looking at the rivers and what happens this time of year.”
Department of Infrastructure spokesperson Sonia Idir said the territory would normally provide 72 hours’ notice of any such closure, though “with rapidly changing conditions, this is not always possible.”
“The Department is closely monitoring conditions and will try to provide as much notice as we can to ensure residents and industry can plan accordingly,” Idir told Cabin Radio by email.
While this season has seen unusual drought conditions and low water levels, it’s not unusual for waters to dip at this time of year. Still, water levels are atypically low, data from an Environment Canada hydrometric map suggests.
“I saw water level around 2.05 metres,” said Whelly. “In previous years, we’ve seen them want to shut the ferry down at 1.8 metres. I guess that becomes a kind-of point beyond which they can’t really operate.
“1.8 becomes a really important number, but that’s not absolute, depending on how the captains are finding the trip across the river.”
In the past, boats have operated with water levels as low as 1.6 metres, according to Whelly. When waters drop this low, there’s an increased risk of hitting rocks that can damage boats and pose a safety risk. (Farther up the Mackenzie River – which, like the Liard, flows past Fort Simpson – a tugboat became stuck in low water several days ago and remained stranded as of Tuesday.)
Whelly recommends that residents of Fort Simpson stock up on supplies in advance, as the ferry season ultimately will be determined by rainfall in the coming weeks.
The Department of Infrastructure said it has options to help ferries operate in shallow waters.
“Some measures implemented to extend the ferry season include navigating an upstream water channel and implementing weight restrictions on the vessels,” Idir wrote. “Other measures could be implemented if deemed necessary.”
Whelly recommends bringing heavy materials and items like those used for construction “sooner than later.”
“We’re close,” said Whelly. “If there was no more rain, they probably have a couple of weeks to get things done. If I absolutely needed stuff here, I would be making every effort to get it here now.”
He said there remains a chance the ferry will operate into October, as long as adequate rain falls over the next few weeks to fill the Liard River basin.
“Given that they’ve seen what’s been happening all summer, I think people are usually well prepared,” said Whelly. “They’re trying to do everything they can to keep the ferries going as long as possible.
“They do whatever they can, but we can’t stop the water from dropping if there is no rain.”