Water levels outside Fort Simpson dipped slightly as ice on the Mackenzie River gradually began to break and move on Thursday afternoon.
Officials said they had moved everyone off the main island in case the water level eventually increased. Until now, flooding in the community has been driven by breakup of the Liard River, which flows into the Mackenzie at Fort Simpson.
Residents have been waiting with trepidation for the Mackenzie to break. It’s not yet clear whether the Mackenzie breaking will ease pressure on the village as ice begins moving or, alternatively, drive further flooding in the days to come.
“The main ice pack that was in front of the community started to move and it’s cleared itself a little bit,” Fort Simpson Mayor Sean Whelly told Cabin Radio on Thursday afternoon. On Facebook, he said water levels in front of the island had dropped from above 15 metres to around 14.5 metres.
“The river didn’t change a whole lot in how much it went down, but it did drop a little bit and, whatever that did, it threw in some Mackenzie ice,” said Whelly.
“I see big pans of Mackenzie ice just starting to come down.”
More than 700 people are displaced from their homes in the village. So far, more than 100 of those have evacuated to Fort Smith.
Village fire chief Roger Pilling was said to be on a Thursday afternoon flight determining the potential impact of the Mackenzie River breaking.
Whelly said residents could face a lengthy wait to return home, depending on how breakup proceeds.
The mayor believes residents may need to wait four to six days from the time water levels decrease before being able to return.
“People shouldn’t expect power and water to be on for four to six days, so it’s still not going to be that comfortable,” he said of the time at which residents would be able to return, once the Mackenzie has broken and the danger has passed.
“I suppose if people wanted to go home, the life-threatening risk, potentially, of the Mackenzie coming down would be eliminated, but the state of emergency would continue,” said Whelly.
Over the past few days, residents have been able to check on their homes and grab items they may need. Donations from NWT residents have been flowing into the Dehcho with assistance from airlines.
Ferry preparations ramp up
On Facebook, Nahendeh MLA Shane Thompson said crews in Fort Simpson have started removing ice on the shore for the launch of the MV Lafferty ferry.
Sharing an emailed response from infrastructure minister Diane Archie, Thompson said removing the ice will still “take at least a couple of days.”
“A contractor will be brought in to clear ice on other side of the river,” Archie’s email read. “Note that the water in the river is still extremely high and ferry will not be put in the water until the water levels recede to a safe level.”
According to the Department of Infrastructure’s website, the average opening date for the MV Lafferty ferry is May 13.
A study should be completed by the end of 2021 to measure the feasibility of putting a bridge over the Liard River to and from Fort Simpson.
Creation of a bridge would connect Fort Simpson to the broader NWT highway system year-round instead of having to wait for an ice road to freeze in the winter or the ferry in the summer.
“It is expected that the study will result in the identification, analysis, and concept of up to three suitable bridge crossing locations,” the Department of Infrastructure previously told Cabin Radio.