A view of the Taltson hydro system's Twin Gorges dam taken by inspectors contracted to the NWT Power Corporation in May 2018.
The territorial government last week outlined the state of its three biggest infrastructure projects, each billed as transformative but extraordinarily costly.
Building an all-weather highway from Wrigley to Norman Wells, adding a second year-round highway past the NWT’s diamond mines toward Nunavut, and extending South Slave hydro power to the North Slave are projects worth billions of dollars.
They are stated priorities of the current NWT government. Depending which MLA you talk to, they are either part of the ticket to the territory’s economic revival or expensive gambles with money that could be better spent elsewhere.
Department of Infrastructure assistant deputy minister Robert Jenkins last week updated MLAs on progress made. Here’s an overview.
Mackenzie Valley Highway
The Mackenzie Valley Highway will, if and when completed, replace 321 km of winter road between Wrigley and Norman Wells with an all-season gravel highway. Eventually, the aim is to connect to Inuvik, completing for the first time a highway system that spans the territory north to south.
Building the Wrigley to Norman Wells component is expected to cost upward of $700 million.
There is no suggestion the highway will be complete any time soon. So far, the NWT government has secured $180 million, $135 million of which came from the federal government.
Instead of waiting for money to build the whole thing, the GNWT has been picking off affordable slices of the highway.
For example, work is taking place to build the Great Bear River bridge, while environmental and engineering studies are also planned.
The Canyon Creek access road opened in 2018, the Prohibition Creek road is slated to be completed in 2024, and planning for the Mount Gaudet access road has been temporarily halted so the territorial government can consult with the Pehdzeh Ki First Nation in Wrigley, which has expressed concern about aspects of the project.
Jenkins said construction of the Great Bear River bridge is expected to start in 2023 and take three years.
Environmental assessment of the Mackenzie Valley Highway project is expected to take until 2024.
Slave Geological Province Corridor
The NWT’s second major road project would take the end of Highway 4 – which either connects to the diamond mine winter road or empties into Tibbitt Lake, depending on the time of year – and extend it to the Nunavut border.
That requires around 415 km of all-season road, estimated to cost $1.1 billion.
Of that, the GNWT has so far found $40 million. Replacing the Frank Channel Bridge on Highway 3 near Behchokǫ̀ – a $50-million project – is also being counted toward the corridor, as heavy goods vehicles would have to use that bridge on the way.
Building the road would help existing and future mines with resupply, the territorial government argues, further opening an area of land that could drive the territory’s economy. The Tłı̨chǫ Government and others have called for more work to assessment the environmental impacts.
At the moment, an ice road serves the mines each winter. The long-term viability of that road is threatened by climate change, though the extent of that threat is contested.
Eventually, the NWT government hopes mining companies might help fund the road.
Geotechnical work on the project could start in 2022.
The territory’s most ambitious power project would connect the South Slave’s Taltson hydro system to the North Slave’s mini-grid.
That would provide Yellowknife’s grid with some redundancy and help mines along the proposed Slave Geological Province road access cleaner power. It would cost upward of a billion dollars.
There are three phases to the project, each a huge undertaking.
The first involves adding 60 megawatts of generation capacity to the existing 18-megawatt plant at Taltson’s Twin Gorges power station, then stretching a transmission line across or around Great Slave Lake to connect the North and South Slave.
“It’ll provide the foundational green hydro system necessary to stabilize the cost of energy in the 10 communities around Great Slave Lake.” Jenkins said.
Phase two would connect the new grid to the diamond mines and bring “clean energy to the Slave Geological Province and resource sector.”
The final phase would connect that grid to the rest of Canada through Alberta or Saskatchewan.
The last phase is likely to happen in the 2040s at the earliest. Andrew Stewart, director of the NWT’s strategic energy division, said the NWT’s 60-megawatt project is too small to be attractive to other markets at present – but Alberta has indicated it may need to purchase surplus power by 2040.
The project still remains in the feasibility stages with “a great deal of work left to do,” according to Jenkins. For the past two years, the GNWT has focused on exploring Indigenous partnerships for the work, developing its business case, and work related to transmission lines.
There are four options to get a cable across Great Slave Lake. A route is set to be chosen in 2022.