Infrastructure in Dawson City has had a rough go of it lately.
The Yukon government recently gave up on the town’s wastewater treatment facility, meaning officials might be reluctant to pull the plug on another project so soon.
That said, we need to talk about the state of Dawson’s ice bridge.
When the George Black ferry gets pulled out of the river each October, the residents of West Dawson are left on one side, with no access to the town until the water freezes over.
For the last two years the river hasn’t frozen the way it used to, preventing the Yukon government from building a sanctioned ice road at its customary location.
After spending $120,000 last winter in a failed attempted to get the section of the river to freeze by spraying it with water, the government spent another $200,000 this year and even had the National Research Council Canada complete a report on how to make the bridge happen.
But work was halted this week by the territory’s health and safety officials after a large chunk of ice broke off and a snowcat plunged into the river along with two people.
The workers were unhurt but the situation is an example of what can go wrong in these situations.
West Dawsonites are a resourceful bunch and they’ve found their own ways to cross the river at spots not approved by the government. In doing that, they, too, are putting their safety at risk.
One makeshift local “bridge” was formed when a piece of ice was cut lose and floated down the river into place. If the government’s researched plan can fail, whatever structures Dawsonites have MacGyvered into place are certainly risky.
Without a sanctioned road, government vehicles can’t travel to West Dawson to provide services. In the event of an emergency, ambulances and firetrucks can’t legally travel over either.
There’s no word on when health and safety officials will finish their investigation and allow the government contractors back to work. It’s also not clear how much time and work those workers lost when much of the ice that existed broke away.
No one is saying so publicly yet, but all signs point to this year being another bust for the sanctioned ice bridge.
The ferry will be back in the water in early to mid-May. The window between now and the river break-up is closing faster than the government can force the river to freeze.
As climate change continues in the North, there’s no promise that the spot on the river where the government wants to build the bridge will ever freeze solid again.
It might be time to try a different location. Though it may mean a longer trip to get from one side to the other, the work done by locals appears to suggest that other spots along the river are more likely to freeze.
The idea of building a permanent bridge has been tossed around periodically. But if Yukoners bristle at the amount of money the government has spent so far, the cost of an actual bridge will likely freeze them in their tracks.
Ahead of the 2002 territorial election, the Yukon Party government promised to build Dawson a bridge if it was economically feasible. It wasn’t. It still isn’t.
In 2005, the government announced it was scrapping the plan when the price tag came in at more than $50 million.
According to a Whitehorse Star report at the time, the government had budgeted for about $30 million. Parks Canada also reportedly raised concerns about the potential impact of a bridge on cultural values
When you take inflation into account, a $50 million bridge in 2005 would cost about $62 million in 2018 cash, according to the Bank of Canada.
For the small population of people who live in West Dawson, about 100, spending $60 million is not viable.
Currently, the territory spends about $1.6 million a year on repairs and maintenance of the ferry and its landings.
The George Black ferry is 52-years-old, but anyone who thought money could be freed up when it is eventually decommissioned might have a long wait ahead of them.
In an email, a spokesperson for the Yukon Department of Highways and Public Works insists it doesn’t have a retirement date in mind for Dawson’s ferry.
“The ferry has a steel hull and was designed to handle both fresh and salt water. Because of this, it is fairly resilient and doesn’t have an easily defined ‘life cycle.’”
Dawsonites need to start talking about what they want to do if the sanctioned ice bridge never materializes again.
While adults should be able to make the choice to live wherever they want, knowing the risks, the government also has a duty to try and keep its citizens safe.
Conversations need to start soon. Otherwise hell might freeze over before the Dawson ice bridge is ever solid again.