Multiple pipe breaks believed to cause sudden June spike in Yellowknife water usage

Yellowknife's pumphouse on Old Airport Road. The facility was pumping out more water than was flowing in during the month of June, which resulted in the city taking water from Yellowknife Bay instead of Yellowknife River. (Luke Carroll/CBC - image credit)
Yellowknife's pumphouse on Old Airport Road. The facility was pumping out more water than was flowing in during the month of June, which resulted in the city taking water from Yellowknife Bay instead of Yellowknife River. (Luke Carroll/CBC - image credit)

The City of Yellowknife has fixed multiple breaks in private pipes that are believed to be the cause of last month's sudden spike in water usage.

The city started pumping water on June 18 from its backup source, Yellowknife Bay, instead of Yellowknife River because water was flowing out of one of the city's pumphouses at a high rate.

The cause of the increased outflow was initially unexplained, but in a document filed to the Mackenzie Valley Land and Water Board dated June 24, the city wrote that it discovered six, with a possible seventh, break in private pipes that could have caused the spike.

In the document Chris Greencorn, the director of public works, said "it is our hope that these have spiked the outflow (consumption) data we see in our system."

He confirmed on Thursday that all the known breaks have been fixed.

The city has been dealing with a number of breaks in its water system in the past few months, some of which have been caused by shifting ground. This became a frustrating issue for one neighbourhood where water flooded properties and hampered residents' ability to navigate their streets.

The city is dealing with a water pipeline system that was built in 1969 and is nearing the end of its life. But a project to replace it doesn't look to be happening anytime soon because the city paused the regulatory process due to not having enough money.

Kerry Black, an assistant professor and Canada Research Chair at the University of Calgary's Schulich School of Engineering, said it's common for pipes to have water leaks. But for leaks to happen regularly and to the point it's impacting reservoirs — like what happened in Yellowknife in March — is part of a larger issue Canadian municipalities are facing. That issue, she said, is aging infrastructure.

Yellowknife's water pipeline was built at a time when a lot of infrastructure across Canada was being constructed.

"We're reaching the end point, but we're also reaching a space where we're starting to see cracks literally, not just metaphorically ... we're going to see a lot more of them happening," she said. Black pointed to a recent major water main break in Calgary as one of the more noteable cases of infrastructure damage.

"If you look across Canada you'll see that a lot of pockets of breaks have been happening, little floods here and there in the city, little impacts here and there. And we're just going to start to see a lot more of those, unfortunately."

Black said it's an expensive problem for communities, especially with a small tax base, to fix. She said cost limits the number of solutions, but there is one option that won't be well received.

"And that's that we pay more for our water infrastructure and our water. And it's, you know, straight up, that's not a popular opinion," Black said.

"No one wants to pay more because it's a difficult change that you have to experience. But the reality is we are having a difficult time making ends meet with what we're currently allocating towards infrastructure."

Black said it's on higher levels of government to make changes. She also said what makes the North unique is the impact climate change is having on aging infrastructure.

"The ground is literally changing and that's causing some of these issues to happen more frequently than we might expect to, and that's certainly problematic," she said.