The fire truck that's keeping this N.W.T. community's taps running

When a water intake pump at Fort Providence, N.W.T.’s water treatment plant broke down in mid-December, local mechanic Cameron Sapp had an idea. He could drive his decommissioned fire truck down to the shore of the Mackenzie River and use it as a temporary replacement for the pump. So far, it’s worked.

Local 'MacGyver' Cameron Sapp's old pumper truck is making sure water tanks don't run dry over the holidays

Cameron Sapp's 1986 F800 fire truck has been vital to keeping the taps running in Fort Providence, N.W.T., after a pump broke down in mid-December. (Cameron Sapp)

It's probably not how you'd draw up the optimal water intake system. But when a pump at the Fort Providence, N.W.T., water treatment plant broke down in mid-December, local mechanic Cameron Sapp figured his decommissioned fire truck could fill in to do the job.

"They come to me looking for a way to pump water," said Sapp, after hamlet crews had struggled to keep up with local water demand for about a week or so. "I gave them a few ideas."

When Sapp checked out the pumps they were using a few days later, he told them they needed higher water pressure to keep the lines from freezing. 

It just so happened that Sapp had an old 1986 F800 pumper truck sitting around. He'd bought it from the hamlet a few years ago with the intention of hauling it down to High Level, Alta., where his grandfather could use it to wash equipment on his farm. Sapp hadn't been able to move it south due to COVID-19.

"I had that old pumper truck and I said I can give it a shot," he said. "We can try it and see how it goes."

Ever since, Sapp and a small crew from his mechanic shop, CMMS, have braved bouts of –40 C weather, pumping water from the Mackenzie River to feed the town's water plant and keeping the hamlet's 770 residents from empty water tanks over the holidays.

So far, the old fire truck has responded to the emergency.

Fort Providence, N.W.T., Mayor Danny Beaulieu, pictured here in 2019, said Cameron Sapp 'was almost as good as MacGyver,' after coming up with the idea of using an old fire truck to replace a 'crapped out' pump at the local water treatment plant in mid-December. (Submitted by Danny Beaulieu)

"He rigged it up so it pumps water to the plant reservoir and it gets treated, and it's working quite well right now," said Mayor Danny Beaulieu.

"I would say he's almost as good as MacGyver."

'A little bit of a scramble'

The hamlet of Fort Providence posted three separate public advisories to Facebook — on Dec. 13, 14 and 16 — asking residents to conserve water due to "maintenance issues at the Fort Providence Water Plant" and "low reservoir levels."

"When it first started, it was a little bit of a scramble," said Beaulieu. "There was a couple of days we had to send trucks to Hay River to pick up water and people were conserving water so that they don't run out."

The hamlet limited water deliveries to 700 litres for single-unit dwellings and 1,000 litres for multi-unit dwellings.

In Fort Providence, like many Northern communities, water is trucked to households and businesses and stored in tanks.

Cathie Clark is hotel manager of the Snowshoe Inn in Fort Providence. She said staff have been carefully monitoring their water usage over the last three weeks, right down to learning how much water each load of laundry consumes.

Staff also posted notes in each of the inn's bathrooms to explain the community is under a water conservation notice, asking guests to be mindful of the length of their showers and how often they flush their toilets.

"When I'm doing dishes they pile up in the sink before I get ready to do them, just to be mindful of the amount of water we use," Clark said.

'It's been a battle, for sure'

Sapp said it took some trial and error when they first began pumping water to ensure they were getting the pressure right. But overall, they've managed to mostly stay on top of local demand. "When we're running good, there's really no issue," he said. "We pump as much as the original intake pumps pumped in there."

That's not to say there haven't been snags. For one, the weather has not been co-operative. "It's been a battle, for sure, trying to pump water at –35 C or worse," said Sapp. "Not ideal."

"When we're running smooth, we're only putting in eight hours a day," Sapp said. But if the truck needs maintenance or the hoses freeze up, they have to catch up the following day.

On Thursday, Beaulieu said he expected a new pump to arrive sometime the following week. "They'll install it and things will go back to normal, I hope," he said.

He acknowledged the water deliveries from Hay River and the cost of contracting out the fire truck will exceed their typical water budget for the month. "It'll cost a little more," said Beaulieu. "Maybe quite a bit more, but it has to be done. It's an emergency situation. We're okay."

Clark said some of the restrictions have been lifted since Sapp's fire truck-turned-water-pump started to bring water levels back up to normal again.

Upgrades on the way

The water treatment plant in Fort Providence is starting to show its age.

Former Deh Cho MLA Michael Nadli raised concerns about the plant in a 2018 statement in the Legislative Assembly, noting it was built in the 1970s "at the end of the Providence Narrows, where the current of the Mackenzie [River] is fastest and strongest." 

A water line into the treatment plant, first installed in 1976, is still in use, after a replacement intake failed in 2004. "Low water levels and ice have both caused problems," he said.

But Fort Providence is set to undergo upgrades to its water treatment plant this summer, said Beaulieu. "We're going to change it so this summer we'll have a new intake and we should be okay."