Fort Simpson flood scare re-sparks conversation about riverbank erosion

With water levels at the Mackenzie River threatening a flood for Fort Simpson residents this spring, a conversation is brewing about the health of the riverbank, and how to protect nearby properties.

Mackenzie River levels stopped just short of declaring local emergency during spring breakup

A look at water levels in Fort Simpson during the 2020 spring breakup season. Water levels on the Mackenzie River stopped just short of declaring a local state of emergency. (Submitted by Josanne Kenny)

The transition from winter to spring in Fort Simpson, N.W.T., is marked by the breakup of ice on the Mackenzie River and the Liard River. In some years, that transition is also marked by concerns around flooding, leaving locals wondering about the state of the riverbank, and the homes closest to it.

Riverbank erosion has been an ongoing concern for many Fort Simpson residents. Mackenzie Drive, which hugs the river, is home to several residential properties and key infrastructure including the community's power plant, water sewage treatment plant, health centre, and long term care facility. 

The riverbank has been receding for some time, but high waters paired with thick ice may accelerate the issue.

"Even though a flood is pretty standard" for the area, Mayor Sean Whelly said, conversations about how to best manage risks were brought to the forefront this spring. This year, water levels climbed to just one metre short of declaring a local state of emergency, Whelly said.

"[Erosion is] something we'll have to take a look at and assess the situation along the banks," Whelly said. "There was a bit of damage."

Relocation a possibility?

The cost to mitigate erosion on the riverbank is projected to be upward of $10 million, said Whelly, a price that has led local leaders to consider relocating the affected properties.

"There's just not that kind of money out there," said Whelly, "and you are fighting nature. It will probably be better to spend our money looking at how to relocate the infrastructure."

Fort Simpson Mayor Sean Whelly says that a new power plant slated for the town will be built away from the riverbank, ensuring that they have a consistent power supply if there is a flood. (Submitted by Sean Whelly)

The community was recently accepted for a federal funding grant under the Investing in Canada Plan to facilitate a transition from diesel power to LNG. While the current power plant is near the riverbank on Mackenzie Drive, the new plant, at an estimated cost of $15 million, is planned to be built on a hill.

"It will be good for the town once that happens, because we will never have to worry about power going out in a flood," Whelly said.

'It seems like it's been getting warmer and warmer every year'

Elder Bob Norwegian grew up at nearby Rabbitskin River. He says that he's seen dramatic changes to the riverbank over the years.

"In the old days," he said, "people would have drum dances and everything on the other side of the road, out towards the power plant."

"There used to be a big point out there, which is now pretty well all gone."

In the past, he said, colder winter months led to thicker ice, he said. That caused a bigger build up in the spring time, meaning the frequency and threat of floods were higher. 

Now, the ice is different. 

"When you're walking on the snow with your snowshoes, it used to just stay on the ground, but now it sticks," said Norwegian.

 "In 1943, it got so cold — my grandma was telling me — that even the ravens froze to death," he said. "Since those years, it seems like it's been getting warmer and warmer every year. 

"In the '60s, the rivers used to make a lot of racket. Ice used to be five, six feet thicker. The ice would shatter, sounding like thunder. It doesn't do that anymore."

"It seems like people have gotten used to it. They come to think of it as normal. But that isn't normal."


Hannah Paulson


Hannah Paulson is a reporter from the Northwest Territories. She grew up in Gameti, Yellowknife, and Liidlii Kue.