Low water levels around Fort Chipewyan grounds barge, large boats

Water levels around the isolated fly-in community have dropped for years, but worsened after the low snowfall and mild weather of last winter.

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This is the time of year when Guy Thacker is usually preparing to load his barge with vehicles, building supplies and cargo for Fort Chipewyan. But water levels in the Athabasca River and Lake Athabasca are the lowest he’s ever seen in the 22 years he’s travelled the rivers of northeastern Alberta.

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Thacker’s barge would run aground if he tried to take his barge onto the river. Not that he can try, anyways. It’s stuck in the shallow waters of Fort Chipewyan. It’s also difficult to launch smaller, personal boats owned by people who actively trap, hunt and fish in the region.

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“It’s high and dry when it’s supposed to be busy for me. This year I can’t even get out of the harbour. It’s impossible,” said Thacker, a Métis man and owner of Fort Chip Marine Transport. “It’s a low-margin business when you factor in the weather and insurance. One season of not barging is going to hurt. It could almost bankrupt me.”

Reaching Fort Chipewyan is at the mercy of weather because Fort Chipewyan can only be reached by boats, planes or a winter road. There is no permanent road connecting the hamlet to Fort McMurray or Fort Smith, NWT.

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water levels
Water levels in Fort Chipewyan on May 11, 2024. Image supplied by Guy Thacker of Fort Chip Marine Transport

As of Tuesday evening the Alberta government is tracking 21 provincial water shortage advisories. Three of those advisories are in the Athabasca River basin. A warm winter and sparse snowfall has placed much of Alberta under drought. Southern Alberta’s drought conditions are the worst and range from moderate to extreme, according to Environment Canada.

Drought conditions in the Fort McMurray Wood Buffalo region are being monitored by the municipality, but local water shortages are not anticipated this year. Recent heavy rainfall has raised water levels slightly around Fort Chipewyan, but more is needed if Thacker wants his barge river worthy this summer.

“We’re in dire straits. There’s nothing coming downstream,” said Chief Allan Adam of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation (ACFN). “You see it once in awhile when a west wind is blowing really hard, but nothing like this.”

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Adam says water levels surrounding Fort Chipewyan have been dropping in recent years, but worsened after this past mild winter.

He worries about how low water levels might hurt fighting wildfires in the region. When a wildfire last year forced an evacuation of Fort Chipewyan, hundreds of people escaped the community in boats. The barge was also used to bring vehicles, heavy equipment and fuel to people fighting the fire and building fire breaks.

In a statement, municipal spokesperson Greg Bennett said an evacuation of Fort Chipewyan would prioritize planes if the community’s dock could not be used in an emergency. The community’s water treatment plant has not been impacted by water levels, but there are plans in place to continue drawing water from Lake Athabasca if water levels continue plunging.

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Adam says the water levels show why a permanent road is needed. He has met with Mayor Sandy Bowman and the mayor of Fort Smith, NWT. about the topic, and Adam says there is agreement that an all-weather road is needed. He has been lobbying the provincial and federal governments to support a route.

Thacker knows that would kill his barging business and hates the thought of more tourists bringing traffic to the lake. However, Thacker knows support for a permanent road is gaining support. He says any permanent road should be decided by the community.

“I guess it’ll come here eventually, but everyone should have a say on a road,” he said. “As summer progresses, it’s just going to get worse and worse. Our prevailing winds are from the west and I’m worried if it’ll be completely dry here.”

Water levels seen from Fort Chipewyan on May 11, 2024. Image supplied by Guy Thacker of Fort Chip Marine Transport

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