The entrance to an MTS facility in Hay River. Ollie Williams/Cabin Radio
After the year’s last barge resupply to two Sahtu communities was cancelled, Norman Wells mayor Frank Pope hopes the NWT government will pay to fly in groceries.
“The consumer does not have to pay for it. We can’t absorb any more higher costs up here,” Pope told Cabin Radio this week.
Norman Wells and Tulita get many supplies shipped through barges, supplies that haven’t been able to leave Hay River through a combination of that town’s evacuation and critically low water levels.
On September 8, the NWT government-controlled Marine Transportation Services scrapped the final shipment to the two communities because water along the Mackenzie River was too low to safely operate. One tugboat has already become stranded outside Fort Providence.
With Hay River essential workers now returning and most residents expected to come home next week, Pope says the territorial government will be able to go through the cargo still sitting in the town and prioritize goods for urgent shipping via other means, like flights.
Charters carrying the town’s vegetables and fruit fly in every week, but fuels like propane and heavy goods can’t come in that way. Those come in by winter road early each year, but Pope worries that climate change could increasingly jeopardize that means of transport, too.
“And how we are going to handle that? I don’t know,” he said. “The winter road is not reliable, given the current global warming situation that we’re going through.”
In a typical cold season, the winter road lasts eight to 10 weeks, according to Pope. But a few years ago, when the weather turned warm, some of those roads swiftly became impassable.
“We had an awful lot of trucks and personal vehicles that didn’t make it home. They had to come home on the barge in the following summer,” he said.
A 2022 study – published by a team including Canadian and South Korean researchers in the peer-reviewed, open-access journal Earth’s Future – suggested the duration of lake-ice cover is shortening quickly as a result of climate change, with many northern lakes experiencing ice-free years.
“For transportation that requires the thickest ice cover, the number of days with safe ice will decline by 90 percent, 95 percent and 99 percent with 1.5C, 2C, and 3C global warming, respectively,” a summary of that study stated.
Pope said he has faith that MTS and the territorial government will get supplies to Norman Wells eventually, but he adds that the building crisis was apparent to him for months.
“When we saw the low water levels in May already, we knew we were going to be in trouble,” he said.
A cold winter means Norman Wells can get goods through the winter road. The rest, Pope said, can come in next summer on barges.
Last month, Pope reiterated what he says is a need to accelerate construction of the all-season Mackenzie Valley Highway from Wrigley to Norman Wells, a plan for which was first proposed in 1992.
The territorial government has pursued that plan for decades but remains many hundreds of millions of dollars short of the funding needed to build the road.
“We need the highway, we need all-season traffic up here,” said Pope in an earlier interview.
“If there are low water levels in future years, as the winter road season gets shorter, we’re going to be in trouble.”