Norman Wells and Tulita, N.W.T., won't get barge deliveries this year

The Deh Cho bridge near Fort Providence. Low levels of water can be seen well into the middle of the Mackenzie River. (Travis Burke / CBC - image credit)
The Deh Cho bridge near Fort Providence. Low levels of water can be seen well into the middle of the Mackenzie River. (Travis Burke / CBC - image credit)

Two N.W.T. communities won't receive barge deliveries this year due to low water levels on the Mackenzie River.

On Thursday morning, the territorial government announced Marine Transportation Services would be cancelling barges to Norman Wells and Tulita.

In a news release, the Department of Infrastructure wrote that the Mackenzie River near Fort Providence is "not navigable and includes obstacles such as large boulders and gravel bars at key manoeuvring areas."

It wouldn't be safe for barges to traverse the river, the department wrote.

"We've got senior captains who have not seen rocks or sandbars in the water [before]," said Tracy St. Denis, the department's assistant deputy minister, in an interview.

The cancellation means the territory's fuel services division will deliver fuel to Tulita once winter comes and the winter road opens.

St. Denis said the department did some pre-planning over the winter in case this happened, bringing extra fuel up to Tulita to make sure the community would have enough if barges were cancelled. She said there's enough to last until the winter road season arrives.

The department also said it has notified Imperial Oil of the cancellation, since Imperial Oil sells fuel in Norman Wells.

The announcement comes two weeks after the N.W.T. government announced major changes to the barge schedule for 2024. That announcement meant all cargo going north of Norman Wells would be redirected to Tuktoyaktuk instead.

Last week, Buffalo Airways announced it would be offering discounted rates to fly cargo to Sahtu communities as a way to offset the impacts of changes to barging schedules.

'Very disappointed'

Pascal Audet, the deputy mayor of Norman Wells, said local and territorial representatives for the town had been ringing the alarm for some time about the possibility of the barge being cancelled due to low water levels.

"We're very disappointed," he said. "With that being said, we're not surprised at all."

He said he doesn't blame Marine Transportation Services for cancelling given the situation on the Mackenzie River, but he expects the repercussions of the decision to be felt throughout Norman Wells and surrounding communities.

"It's going to have a huge effect on the community — any kind of significant building project or construction project will be postponed. We have Imperial Oil here in town that runs a large operation, and they need to be resupplied. The list just goes on and on," he said.

St. Denis said her team, too, was disappointed. They'd spent time this winter making plans for lighter barges or lower weights so they could get barges to Tulita and Norman Wells — plans that fell apart after recent assessments around Fort Providence showed it wouldn't be safe to move cargo.

She said a couple of people had already dropped off cargo meant for the two communities. She said her department is reaching out to them to discuss options.

For Audet, the long-term solution is one that needs to be tackled right away: an all-weather road to Norman Wells. It's a familiar and long-standing call for the Mackenzie Valley Highway project, which community members also pointed to as a solution last year, after the barge to Norman Wells and Tulita was cancelled as well.

"The community's in dire straits here," Audet said. "We need to get resupplied and the river's no longer a viable resupply route.... We need the road."

St. Denis said her department is going through the environmental assessment process for the road project.

"It is a mandate project for our government, absolutely," she said.