As the ground begins to thaw and shift in Fort Smith, residents are questioning what is being done to secure the Slave River riverbank and prevent another tragic landslide like the one in 1968.
The Town of Fort Smith says a slope stabilization study, which was supposed to be completed this past March, has been delayed.
Residents have started sharing photos of a section on the trail on the north boundary of the town, near the river, that reportedly drops between one to four feet in spots.
“My kids and I just drove off a four-foot drop and almost tipped over,” wrote one person on the community’s Facebook page. “The area should be taped off.”
Logs placed by residents attempt to stop people going over a drop. Photo: Alexandra James
Another post questions the Town’s plan of action: “The river bank is deteriorating at an alarming rate. Is there a plan of action in order?”
Both posts have generated much discussion online.
Kevin Smith, the deputy mayor, wrote to say:”The Town advises people to stay away from the slumping areas as the ground may continue to shift and slump. Caution tape has been put up to warn residents and visitors if they approach the affected areas.”
The spring sliding follows two other shifts in the sandy bank last year: in June a landslide appeared to strike the ski hill, and in late November the Department of Lands warned of “large cracks“ showing up along the same trail that is moving this spring.
A Department of Lands photo shows where cracks were observed along the riverbank in November.
In November, the Town of Fort Smith received a $155,000 climate change-related federal grant to complete a slope stabilization study. The study is supposed to include a budget and engineering analysis so the Town is able to quickly apply for more funding to implement the plan when it becomes available.
At the time, the Town’s senior administrative officer, Keith Morrison, said a request for proposals was closing at the end of November. The Town had aimed to have the plan in its hands by the end of March.
But when Cabin Radio reached out last week, Morrison wrote: “Study delayed pending resolution of land access issues with GNWT; hope to have more info by end [of] June.”
Cabin Radio could find no mention of the study contract being awarded in the Town’s council meeting minutes for December, January, or February. Morrison did not respond to repeated follow-up requests regarding what was meant by “land access issues,” nor did he state if the study had been started.
In the May Northern Climate Action newsletter, the NWT Climate Change Committee for Adaptation said 13 projects were funded in the 2018-19 fiscal year. One of them was for “riverbank and slope stabilization assessments in Kátł’odeeche First Nation, Fort Smith, and Fort McPherson.”
The money, which comes from the federal Climate Change Preparedness in the North program, doesn’t necessarily have to be used in the year it was awarded.
Miki Ehrlich, with the NWT Association of Communities, said recipients are allowed flexibility within the range of time for which they requested funding – and can also apply for extensions. Recipients’ funding agreements vary.
Who owns the riverbank?
Meanwhile, Christina Carrigan, a spokesperson for the territory’s Department of Lands, wrote: “[We are] not aware of any issues precluding the Town of Fort Smith from moving forward with the study.
“The area along the riverbank is within the municipal boundaries of Fort Smith and contains a mix of private and town-owned land, as well as Commissioner’s land administered by the GNWT.”
In November, Morrison had noted the area of the riverbank the Town wants to treat is not owned by the Town, but by the GNWT.
“The GNWT has to play a role in ensuring the safety of the town and the safety of their lands within town boundaries,” he said at the time.
Smith was more straightforward.
“The Town doesn’t have the funding required to mediate the slumping all by itself and the GNWT needs to support the Town with this, as most of the affected lands are actually Commissioner’s Lands,” he wrote in an email.
” The environmental reserve slide areas that the Town owns or has leases on are being actively managed for appropriate recreational use,” he alleged, highlighting the snowboarding and tobogganing hill as one example.
“[They] aren’t currently slumping but lands owned by the GNWT and others that aren’t being actively managed do appear to be slumping.”
Part of the Town’s 2018 strategic plan was to lobby the GNWT and the federal government to stabilize the slide zone.
This is a change from 2015, when Fort Smith applied to the territorial government to extend the municipal boundary north to include part of the Slave River.
When asked for the Department of Lands’ response to Fort Smith’s sentiment that the GNWT is also responsible for stabilizing the bank, Carrigan said the territorial government’s responsibility is to inspect, document, and report on its state.
“We leverage social media to keep residents informed when there are changes observed and will continue to do so in the interest of public safety,” she wrote.