Although the City of Whitehorse says that the landslide that closed Robert Service Way over the weekend was small in comparison to the one that caused a similar closure last year, it remains unclear when the road will be reopened.
The roadway and trails between Fourth Avenue in downtown Whitehorse and the softball fields across from the Robert Service campground were closed by a landslide in the early-morning hours of April 8.
At an April 11 press conference, city officials told reporters that this slide pales in comparison to the one that closed the same stretch of road on April 30 of last year.
At the conference, the city’s manager of engineering services Taylor Eshpeter said the larger slide events last year ranged from 3,000 to 5,000 cubic metres of material slipping free from the escarpment while the April 8 slide is being estimated at around 500 cubic metres.
“Since last year’s slide, the City of Whitehorse has been preparing for this year’s spring freshet, and the risk of slides along the escarpment in Whitehorse from Robert Service Way down to Takhini. Most of the escarpment is stable, however, a number of areas have shown the potential for landslides,” said Mayor Laura Cabott.
Acting fire chief Jason Wolsky said there are no indications of danger to any people or their homes but a plan will be put in place to notify nearby residents if evacuations are required.
Cabott said monitoring of the escarpment is the focus for now and at some point the roadway itself will be cleared but she could not offer a timeline for when the road might reopen. Eshpeter said planned monitoring, which has already used visual inspections and surveying monuments to check for movements on the slope, will be stepped up during the spring freshet from May 1 to June 1.
The mayor thanked city staff for their work over the long weekend and asked that people respect the closures, noting that some barricades had been moved and someone had driven through the closed area in the early hours of the morning after the slide.
“We certainly don’t want anybody going in there and being injured and we don’t want any of our emergency response team to have to go in and extract you and put themselves in danger,” Cabott said.
Cabott said the city wouldn’t have been able to reopen the road this spring without the sheet pilling wall that was put in place last year because there is still a lot of material that could slide down along the same path taken by last April’s slide. However, a similar wall won’t solve the problem presented by the more recent slide. Eshpeter said a sheet pile wall will be ineffective on this section because the toe of the escarpment comes right up to the roadway leaving no space for sliding debris to collect behind the wall.
A variety of mitigation measures are being considered by the city and Cabott said a decision has not been made on which one to proceed with. The mayor did say that dealing with the landslide challenges is likely to be a “mega project” costing tens of millions of dollars. Annual closures of the road during the spring are also being considered.
One large project related to landslide risk is a $10-million replacement of the Takhini sewer line which Cabott said is very susceptible to landslide damage in its current state. That project will be going out to tender shortly.
Cabott chalked the possibility of future slides up to climate change and the vulnerable position of Robert Service Way between the escarpment and the Yukon River. She noted that while this winter did not see the extraordinary snowfall of the past two years, the ground remains saturated from that record-setting weather.
“The escarpment has been eroding for a long, long time, but nothing like we’ve experienced the last couple of years. So it’s relatively new. We’re taking in the data, we’re learning as much as we can. Anything that we’re doing now we’ll try and improve on going forward but this is relatively new and what option that we land on is going to depend on all of that data, all the science, all the options that are available to us and frankly the price tag we’ll have to consider that as well,” Cabott said.
Buses have already been rerouted to account for the lost route to downtown. Cabott said the city is in the early days when it comes to making the decision to bring in free transit as a traffic easing measure like it did in 2022. For those who walk or cycle the rotary pedestrian bridge near the hydroelectric dam is being kept open allowing a route to downtown via Riverdale.
Following the 2022 landslides, the Yukon government announced Feb. 20 it will pony up $2 million for the City of Whitehorse to offset costs of that response. In the joint release, the city pegged the cost to respond to last year’s slides at around $2.3 million.
Richard Mostyn, the territorial minister of Community Services, told reporters April 11 the city has not asked the Yukon government for anything so far in response to the latest landslide.
He said the territorial government will wait for the city to make a request for assistance.
“The City of Whitehorse is a great government. They know what they’re doing, and they will deal with this issue as a municipality, and if they need support, they will come to us, and we’ll see what we can do,” he said.
“I’m not going to come in like Big Brother and say you should do this, you ought to do that.”
Mostyn said the Yukon government’s new $50-million emergency contingency fund could potentially go toward dealing with “acts of God” such as wildfires, floods and landslides.
“We’ve had two bad years,” he said, noting the ground is saturated “in ways we haven’t seen before.”
“The influence of climate change is having a real and profound effect on our society in North America [and] around the world, and we’re certainly seeing those effects here in Whitehorse.”
Mostyn declined to comment on whether the city should provide free public transit, like last year. Making the city’s public transit free to riders overall is a commitment in the territorial Liberal-NDP confidence and supply agreement.
Contact Jim Elliot at email@example.com
-With files from Dana Hatherly and Stephanie Waddell