Frozen until spring - or summer

Michael Johansen
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The axe head and much of the handle was encrusted with ice, doubling its weight in my hands, but as long as the blade remained free, I kept chopping to keep a stream of water running across a frozen lake to fill a frozen reservoir.

My mittens and arms, my boots and legs were similarly encrusted, but to stop and clean them off was pointless, since it would all freeze back within minutes. In the time spent, the frigid air would have frozen over more and more of the channel, threatening to dam it tight and deprive more than 1,000 people of water.

In that winter in Nain in the early 1990s, strong winds kept blowing all the snow away, leaving nothing to protect underground water and sewer lines when temperatures plunged to below minus 40.

Nothing protected lakes and rivers, either.

Nain's reservoir, a natural pond, was freezing nearly solid and almost running dry. As soon as it stopped flowing, Nain's whole water and sewer system would freeze solid, too.

To stop that from happening, town workers strung fire hoses across hills to pump water from a pond above the reservoir, but there weren't enough of the hoses to reach all the way to town. That's why a channel was cut across the reservoir ice and why the town enlisted volunteers to keep chopping it open through the long dark nights.

This year, not far from Nain - that is, only a few hundred kilometres to the south - the town of Hopedale is going through the same experience and is facing the same threat.

A leaky valve helped deplete the Hopedale reservoir and pressure in the town's pipes has dropped to almost a third of normal. Taps have to be kept open in all the houses, meaning more and more water has to be fed into the top of the flow.

Fire hoses and pumps have come from Rigolet, Natuashish, Voisey's Bay and Nain to help replenish the reservoir from surrounding ponds, but with temperatures as cold as they are - at minus 20 C and lower - it doesn't take long for an uninsulated six-inch hose to freeze as solid as concrete and slow everyone's hard work.

The Canadian Red Cross and at least one private business have been trying to help out Hopedale residents by sending them bottled water. That kind of aid might be coming a little early and, with any luck, may ultimately prove to be unnecessary. However, it might be needed more urgently soon enough if the current efforts don't succeed.

For now, as long as the pipes are refilling the system, there is water enough, but if it goes the way Nain did 20 years ago, those bottles will become both necessary and welcome.

The many volunteers who tried to save Nain's water supply two decades ago eventually lost the battle against the cold, and the whole system froze to a halt. Over the following weeks and months, it was only gradually thawed out, with much of the town only getting water and sewer services restored towards the end of summer.

During that long spring, hundreds of people depended on public faucets for water and the banks off the main street reeked from the frequently dumped contents of dozens of honey buckets.

So, when civil authorities in Hopedale declare the town to be in a state of emergency, they are not acting lightly.

If the people in Hopedale lose the battle and all their pipes freeze solid, it won't be just a minor inconvenience for a day or a week.

Once they freeze, they could be frozen for months and the work to thaw out both the water and the sewer pipes will no doubt be hindered by the inevitable and frequent need to dig up and repair cracks and breaks throughout the system.

Hopedale has had a visit from provincial officials, but so far there's been no word of any "material support" from either St. John's or Ottawa. If the governments have any to give, they should give it right away, before a temporary water supply problem becomes a financial disaster for Hopedale and a public health emergency as well.

Michael Johansen is a writer living in Labrador.

Geographic location: Hopedale, St. John's, Ottawa Labrador

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Recent comments

  • Brian Williams
    March 05, 2012 - 08:30

    Nice article and good timing Micheal, one small error though. The Nain dam mentioned was actually man made. I was built back in the early to mid 1980's across a natural brook.