Breakup hits Hay River

Diana Yeager/NNSL photo From the West Channel Bridge on May 1, it could be seen that the Hay River as it enters the West Channel was largely free of ice. On the left of the photo, the East Channel remained blocked with ice.

Diana Yeager/NNSL photo
From the West Channel Bridge on May 1, it could be seen that the Hay River as it enters the West Channel was largely free of ice. On the left of the photo, the East Channel remained blocked with ice.

The Hay River appears to have successfully broken the ice without making things awkward for anyone.

As of May 1, running water had swept its way down the West Channel with a few intermittent blockages but no notable damage or flooding.

Ross Potter, director of protective services with the Town of Hay River, has been keeping close watch on the river levels since Alberta’s Chinchaga River, a tributary to the Hay River, broke up on April 15. Potter estimated that within 14 days of the tributary’s breakup, Hay River would see running water.

His estimate was accurate to the exact date, with ice flowing on April 29 in Hay River.

With recent low water levels, Potter was not expecting flooding this year but said it is still important to keep a wary eye on the river.

“The West Channel is blocked now, but water must be getting out underneath,” he said on the morning of May 1. “On the encouraging side, water levels to the south are dropping which means we don’t have a whole bunch of water coming at us.”

Even with an uneventful breakup, Potter does not rest easy until the ice is gone.

“It depends how things break up,” he said. “If the Chinchaga has a hard break, it can affect us. So many different factors play into this. You never want to let your guard down with Mother Nature.”

Potter said there has been a cycle of flooding during breakup – starting with the major flood in 1963, then 1974, 1985 and the late ’80s, 1992, and then ending with the last major flooding event in 2008.

He said the low water levels of recent years are no guarantee that Hay River can rest easy.

“As recently as 2008, the ice picked up NCTL’s tugboats and laid them on the shore,” he said. “So no, I’ll never say it’s not worth watching out for.”

This has been an early breakup with the past three years’ events happening May 5, 14 and 10 respectively.

Potter said the warmer weather has little effect on what the river does.

“What’s coming down the river affects us more,” he said. “This is one of the warmer years for breakup, though. It is usually colder while breakup is happening.”

Potter spent all hours of the weekend watching his monitors for any sign of surges in water levels upstream. He looks for rapid rising of the river which would indicate a backup and a breakthrough of water coming down the river.

“I watch the meters on government weather sites to see if there is anything coming up the watershed toward us,” he explained. “(Thursday) I saw 740 cubic metres per second, and that was the push that triggered Paradise Valley to clear out. We like to see a rise in water at and around the falls to push the ice out.”

“It just needs a push,” he said. “I’d like to see the East Channel go. I can’t call it over until I see both channels running free to the lake.”

–Diana Yeager