Low river levels forecast
Transportation companies worry about rising costs

Jorge Barrera
Northern News Services

Yellowknife (May 08/00) - Low spring water levels forecast for the Mackenzie River could raise costs for some transportation companies.

The water level of Great Slave Lake, the main feeder for the Mackenzie River, is at 156.46 meters above sea level. The average is 156.68 metres.

"The 22-centimetre difference seems small," said Martin Lacroix, hydrologist for DIAND's water resources division. "You have to multiply the difference by the surface area of the lake to realize how much water is missing."

It's not much above the lowest level on record.

"We are leaning toward historical lows," said Murray Jones from Water Survey of Canada. In 1995, the lake hit a record low of 156.1 metres.

The Mackenzie River at Fort Providence will be directly affected by the drop because of its proximity to Great Slave Lake. The river level there is below average. No exact measurements were available because of break-up. Other rivers are also showing lower than normal flow.

The Liard River, which feeds the Mackenzie River at Fort Simpson, is currently flowing at 1,200 cubic meters a second (cms).

The river normally flows at 1,700 cms. It is expected to drop. The record low is 420 cms in 1982.

The Mackenzie River level measure at Fort Simpson is normal. No flow measurements were available, but the depth of the river is at 6.715 m and falling.

The Mackenzie hit historic lows in 1995. It's not expected to hit those lows, but according to Chris Spence, hydrologist for the Meteorological Service of Canada, "It's not going to continue to go up."

This worries some transportation companies that use barges to haul goods to Mackenzie valley communities.

"The Mackenzie River is important for us. It's our main transportation route in the Western Arctic," says Rick Connors, director of western arctic operations for Northern Transportation Company Ltd. in Hay River.

Low water levels means more trips for barges because they will have to carry lighter loads so the barges can still move up the river.

More trips increases costs for companies. NTCL, for example, operates on fixed contracts and per pound rates. Connors said water levels will not stop shipments.

"In our history we have never not delivered," he said. "What we fear is profit losses."

According to Lacroix, this spring's low water levels are caused by four things: low amount of rain last fall, low snow levels, current river flows and the water level of Great Slave Lake.

Low precipitation, rain in the fall and snow in winter, allows soil to absorb water runoff after thaw. Lower runoff affects river levels and the outflow of Great Slave Lake -- a major source of the Mackenzie.

It's seen as part of a natural cycle.

"It's a normal trend," said Lacroix. "One year it's high, the next it's low. It was high in 1998."

What the levels will be mid-summer depends on rain fall in the Liard Basin and lower Mackenzie tributaries.

"It's going to take a lot of rain to bring below normal conditions to normal," said Spence. "What we have right now is a gentle warning."