Coast Guard ship stuck on sandbar in Hay River harbour

A coast guard vessel got stuck on a sandbar in the Hay River, N.W.T., harbour over the weekend, highlighting the communities long-running request for the federal government to dredge the waterway. 

This comes as the town and territorial government lobby the federal government for dredging

A Coast Guard ship ran aground a sandbar in Hay River over the weekend. This is just the latest boat to get stuck in the Hay River harbour, a hub for Canadian Coast Guard operation and shipping to northern communities. (Jane Groenewegen)

A Canadian Coast Guard ship is stuck on a sandbar in the harbour near Hay River, N.W.T.

The ship is just the latest this season to get caught in this situation. It comes amidst the town and territorial government's calls on the federal government to dredge the waterway. 

Holly Foerter, a spokesperson for the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans, said in an email the Coast Guard vessel, the Dumit, was in the process of picking up buoys at about 8:20 p.m. on Saturday when it encountered the sandbar.

The crew has worked to lighten the load and a tug was attempted by another Coast Guard ship, the MT Kakisa, but the efforts were unsuccessful. Foerter said the MT Kakisa and a third ship, the MV Vic Ingraham, were "hampered by the low water levels and have returned to Hay River." 

Foerter said the crew will attempt to further lighten the load and if that is unsuccessful, "awaiting a north wind-induced water level increase will be required."

Dredging a longtime issue

Hay River is a hub for Canadian Coast Guard operations and shipping further north. But in parts of the channel is a buildup of sediment, which sometimes creates obstacles for boats passing through. The process of clearing the sediment is called dredging, where barges or boats will scoop up the material and move it to other areas. 

Jane Groenewegen, a former MLA and longtime Hay River resident, shared photos of the ship in the harbour on Facebook. 

"I really don't know what it's going to take," she said. "It's a federal waterway, a federal responsibility and now they got a federal vessel out there."

The issue dates to the 1990s when the federal government discontinued the national dredging program and passed off the responsibility to users of ports.

That meant by 1993, Canada stopped the dredging program in Hay River and transferred the dredging equipment to the Town of Hay River, which sold the equipment to a variety of private interests not long after. 

Groenewegen, the former MLA for the area from 1999-2015, said she brought up the need for dredging in Hay River repeatedly in the Legislative Assembly. 

Vince McKay, a former town councillor and longtime Hay River resident, said the same for town council dating as far back as 15 years. 

In a previous email to CBC News, the territorial government said dredging is the responsibility of the federal government.

Shallow water and flooding

McKay says he has a pontoon boat he takes into the harbour. 

"Even at the beginning of the year in its highest peak of water just after breakup, I was surprised by how shallow it was out there," he said.

He said it's now four or five feet deep in certain areas. 

Groenewegen said there's fear the sediment buildup could cause, or at least contribute, to another spring flood. The shallow areas along the river make it harder for water to pass through during breakup, and ice jams can raise the water levels. 

McKay said there's a lot of factors that cause flooding besides shallow water, but added having sandbars by the mouth of the river can certainly be a contributing factor. 

Groenewegen added it's not too late for dredging to happen before the water freezes over.

The North's shipping hub

Groenewegen said there are numerous people and industries being affected by the sediment buildup, including communities along the Mackenzie River that rely on supplies being shipped in, as well as the commercial fishery and of course the Coast Guard base. 

"It's the backbone of Hay River's economy," she said of the harbour. 

Groenewegen said this has been the worst buildup of sediment she's seen, evident by the number of boats that have gotten stuck in the harbour. 

The subject was brought up in the Legislative Assembly by one of Hay River's MLAs, Rocky Simpson. 

"Earlier this year the buildup of sediments at the mouth of the east channel of the Hay River reached a critical level," he said on Oct. 13. "Last spring, and throughout the summer, MTS, coast guard, and commercial fishing vessels all experienced grounding of vessels on sandbars resulting in negative impacts on equipment, marine service delivery, and industry livelihood."

He added the responsibility is the federal government's, but that nonetheless, the issue needs to be resolved. 

"Regardless of whose responsibility it is, the issue is in our backyard. So as far as I'm concerned, it is our problem. Is it our responsibility, and we must do something about it," he said.