'You never know if you're going to get it': Unpredictable river system a challenge for barge deliveries

As the 2019 barging season winds to a close, a look at how service disruptions are impacting communities and what could be contributing to these disruptions.

Ultimately it's the Mackenzie River that decides what gets through, and when

Barges provide an important lifeline for goods to many small N.W.T. communities. Rising prices and unreliable service in recent years has some residents worried about the future. The 2019 barging season was fairly successful, with Marine Transportation Services completing all of its planned sailings. The last two barges are expected to arrive in Hay River to be docked on Wednesday. (NTCL)

The Mackenzie River is a lifeline to many people who live and work in the Northwest Territories. But recent years with delayed or missed barge shipments have left one community leader in doubt about the reliability of the river barge system. 

"It's like [being a] kid at a candy store once you get the candy," said Chief Daniel Masuzumi of Fort Good Hope about when barges stocked with goods are unloaded in his community. "If you get your materials in, then you know you can make some progress as to what you want to do. 

"But for the barge to come in, it's just like, 'Don't expect to get what you want because you never know if you're going to get it.'" 

The last barge trip of the season wrapped up late last month with a final sail up and down the river that acts as a transportation lifeline for those who live and work in the Mackenzie Valley. 

Ten of the N.W.T.'s 33 communities are located on the shores of the Mackenzie River, and other communities in the Beaufort Delta rely on barges using that river's shipping route. 

All planned barge services were carried out this season, according to a spokesperson with the territorial Department of Infrastructure. 

Don't expect to get what you want because you never know if you're going to get it.- Fort Good Hope Chief Daniel Masuzumi

However, aviation fuel was barged all the way to Paulatuk, Ulukhaktok and Sachs Harbour in September before it was realized it was unusable. Flights in and out of the community were changed while the fuel is being treated to pass standards. 

Fuel service has since been restored to Ulukhaktok, with final approval for fuel in Sachs Harbour expected early this week, and treatment of the fuel in Paulatuk expected to be concluded mid-week, according to a spokesperson from the Department of Infrastructure. 

Water levels disrupting barge service 

Low water levels have disrupted barge service along the Mackenzie River several times in the past decade. In 2014, shipping season ended roughly a month early because of low water levels. 2015 was a particularly low water year on all major rivers in the N.W.T. 

The government of the Northwest Territories took over the barge resupply business in 2017, buying out Northern Transportation Company Ltd. for $7.5 million after that company filed for bankruptcy protection. 

In 2018, barge services were delayed throughout the shipping season, and resupplies were ultimately cancelled to three communities in the Beaufort Delta. Supplies were eventually flown in at the taxpayer's expense. 

Government officials have not attributed the 2018 cancellations to low water levels. 

Chief Masuzumi said Fort Good Hope was also impacted, with many supplies intended for the community being left upriver in Norman Wells because the water was too low at the Ramparts — a set of rapids on the river that is particularly difficult to navigate in low water. 

Construction materials like paint froze because of the delays, rendering them useless and needing to be reordered, he said. This makes planning community projects difficult in a community that doesn't have an all-weather road, said Masuzumi. 

A backhoe works to open an ice channel so the Louis Cardinal ferry service can resume between Fort McPherson, Tsiigehtchic and Inuvik. (NWT Dept. of Transportation)

Meanwhile, ferry services along the Mackenzie River are also changing, sometimes due to water conditions and other times due to government spending decisions. 

Ferry service on the Peel River and Mackenzie River connecting the communities of Tsiigehtchic, Inuvik and Tuktoyaktuk ended around Nov. 1, 2017 - about a month earlier than 2016. 

The early closure was due in part to a government decision not to spend roughly $1 million to keep the ferry crossing open as ice formed and work began on the winter crossing. 

Warm weather in the fall and early winter of 2017 delayed freeze-up, exasperating the issues. 

The extended closure caused Tsiigehtchic to run out of fuel in December, which caused particular concern because service vehicles like water trucks needed fuel. 

It also caused alarm in Inuvik, where the community relied on its failing Ikhil natural gas well to heat and otherwise supply the town. It has capacity to store 14 days of fuel within the community. 

This graph shows the volume of water that flowed along the Mackenzie River at Fort Simpson this year as a black line, along with the historical average in dark grey, and the record maximum and minimum water flows recorded in light grey. This year marked the earliest ice break up in recorded history along the Mackenzie River, with an unusually high spike in water flow in late April, followed by fairly low, but not unusually low, water levels through the rest of the summer. (Submitted by GNWT Department of Environment and Natural Resources )

When asked to comment on what's happening to water levels on the Mackenzie River, Ryan Connon, hydrologist with the territorial Department of Environment and Natural Resources, cautioned that it's very difficult to talk about such a big watershed with any certainty. 

The Mackenzie River drainage basin covers 1.8 million square kilometres, about 15 per cent of Canada's total land mass. 

Seeing trends in basins that size and being able to predict how climate change could impact the watershed or the river is very difficult, he said. 

"The basin is just too big to talk about trends," he said. "There are just too many variables." 

And yet, Connon's models do show a trend of increased water flow from November to March throughout the entire Mackenzie River Basin, and that increase in winter water flow is "ubiquitous across the North." 

More water is flowing under the ice through the winter all along the Mackenzie River, according to territorial government hydrologist Ryan Connon. (Submitted by Kristian Binder)

What this could mean for the future of barge services and ice roads on the river Connon wouldn't speculate on. 

"What I like to look at is why," he said. "It could be an impact of overall warming. The ground is taking longer to freeze and draining for longer. That would allow more water into the system and cause the trend to more winter flow." 

What can be done? 

The territorial government is working to address concerns with barge service since it took over Marine Transportation Services (MTS) in 2017. But overall solutions to transportation woes is creating a more robust network with improved road and air access to communities, alongside barge shipments. 

In the short term, the focus is on shipping as many goods as possible early in the season when water levels are higher. 

"To address the lower levels that are common later in the season, MTS moves as much cargo out of Hay River and down the Mackenzie as early in the season as possible," said Greg Hanna, spokesperson for the Department of Infrastructure. "This year, most of the cargo was moved early and has already been delivered to the communities."

MTS captains are experienced in navigating the river and can adjust for low water, he said.

In the medium term, funding to increase fuel storage in strategic locations has been secured through the federal government's Disaster and Mitigation Adaptation Fund. 

"By holding larger inventories of fuel at strategic locations and at communities that routinely receive bulk cargoes and commodities only by marine services, the negative impact of future supply change interruptions can be overcome," said Hanna. 

Longer term, the territorial government is working to add resiliency to the Mackenzie Valley transportation network. This includes road projects such as the proposed Mackenzie Valley Highway, airport and runway improvements, and bolstering marine transportation, including barges and ferries. 


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