Hay River mayor, N.W.T. gov't say they won't stop lobbying for dredging in community's harbour

·4 min read
The Hay River channel used to be dredged regularly. Since the federal government stopped the program in the mid-1990s, there's been a buildup of sediment, sometimes preventing boats from getting through.  (Erwin Just - image credit)
The Hay River channel used to be dredged regularly. Since the federal government stopped the program in the mid-1990s, there's been a buildup of sediment, sometimes preventing boats from getting through. (Erwin Just - image credit)

The mayor of Hay River says she'll keep "pounding the table" when it comes to the issue of dredging — or lack thereof — in the community's shipping channel that pours into Great Slave Lake, and she hopes "people are listening."

Hay River is a hub for Canadian Coast Guard operations and shipping further North. However, in parts of the channel is a buildup of sediment, which sometimes creates obstacles for boats passing through.

"It's an ongoing problem," said Mayor Kandis Jameson. "Every year, it's going to change the landscape out there."

Jameson said the need for dredging, which helps clear out that buildup, came up at the N.W.T. Association of Communities annual general meeting last week.

That's among several recent calls to fix the issue after two barges got stuck in August.

Darren Campbell, a spokesperson for the N.W.T.'s Department of Infrastructure, confirmed in an email that each vessel was stuck on separate days — the first on Aug. 24 and the second on Aug. 27 — and each had to be towed back to the Marine Transportation Services terminal to have their loads lightened. Campbell said the barges's drafts (the vertical height between the waterline and the lowest point of the hull) were too deep for the channel.

Campbell also said the water level in the Hay River had "dropped considerably" over the past few weeks, which made sailing conditions "more challenging."

Samantha Stuart Photography
Samantha Stuart Photography

It wasn't the first time this has happened, but Jameson said this year has been one of the worst for stuck vessels.

The issue of dredging has been a "political hot potato" — as she puts it — for years.

Problems have been cropping up, it seems, ever since the federal government discontinued the national dredging program in the mid-1990s, and passed off the responsibility to users of ports.

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

'They gotta start paying attention'

Over the years, the issue has been brought up in the legislature multiple times by various politicians.

To Jameson, the problem isn't just about boats getting stuck — she thinks the buildup of sediment could have played a role in the historic flood in May.

"What else has to happen, other than the biggest flood on record? To me that means ... they gotta start paying attention."

There are other reasons dredging needs to happen, she said, noting that sediment buildup also affects commercial fishing.

"We just built a fish plant. And [earlier in September], I saw one of our fishing boats was stuck out on one of the sandbars."

Jane Groenewegen
Jane Groenewegen

Jameson said there's also been an increase of advisories for the town's drinking water over the years due to high turbidity levels, which she thinks could have to do with increased silt in the water.

And, with climate change affecting northern communities more than other areas in Canada, she said it's important to take steps to help protect the community.

"I do believe that by dredging, maybe we can mitigate some of this," she said.

Jane Groenewegen, a business owner and resident in Hay River, echoes those sentiments.

As a former MLA, she's among those who has spent time in the past trying to raise the issue in the legislature.

"It's absolutely unbelievable that this is not getting the attention of every level of government," she said.

Responsibility lies with feds, says N.W.T. gov't

In Campbell's email, he said dredging would "improve passage" between the Hay River Harbour and Great Slave Lake, but added dredging would need to be done regularly to constitute a long-term fix.

And, he stressed, the responsibility for dredging the harbour lies with the federal government.

Campbell said that N.W.T. ministers in the past, along with current Infrastructure Minister Diane Archie, have sent "numerous" letters to the federal government "pressing the need" to get the work done.

He also said the territory applied for funding in April 2020 under the federal Oceans Protection Plan to do the first phase of dredging and restoration of the Hay River Harbour, but the proposal was not accepted.

"The GNWT continues to stress to the federal government the importance of the Hay River Harbour," his email reads in part.

"We continue to lobby [the federal government] to take action to reduce the risk to equipment and the environment to avoid the interruption of essential resupply activities and maintain safe and secure commercial marine shipping operations in the N.W.T."

Transport Canada spokesperson Sau Sau Liu said in an email that while the department does not have a specific program to "either fund or carry out dredging operations, it is the approving authority" for proposed dredging under the Canadian Navigable Waters Act.

CBC also reached out to Fisheries and Oceans Canada but did not receive a response by press time.