River levels ‘surprisingly low’ in northwestern Canada

The Yukon River in Whitehorse. A government hydrologist says the entire Yukon River system is running lower than is typical for this time of year. (Paul Tukker/CBC)
While some parts of eastern Canada deal with disastrous flooding, it’s a different story in Yukon, in northwestern Canada — many of the territory’s major rivers are running lower than normal.

“In the Yukon River system right now — including the Pelly [River], including the Stewart, and also Whitehorse area — there’s not a lot of water,” said Benoit Turcotte, senior hydrologist with the Yukon government.

“And most of the easy-melt snow pack is already gone. So it’s surprisingly low for that period of the year.”

Much of the territory saw relatively little snow over the winter and a lot of it is now long gone, having melted during a spell of unusually warm weather early in the spring.

Around Whitehorse, much of the winter snow had melted off by the end of March. (Nancy Thomson/CBC)

“Strangely, that melting in March did not generate a lot of run-off. One would expect that the rivers would be nicely flowing right now, because the snow might not be on the ground anymore,” Turcotte said.

“So it’s something unusual I would say, for Yukon.”

Turcotte said the dry spring conditions are a potential concern for wildland firefighters. He also said the highways department uses hydrological data to determine when ferries can operate.

“Of course, once the ice is gone they tried to put the ferries as soon as possible in the water. But now maybe low water levels will start to be a concern,” he said.

Last fall, Dawson City’s George Black Ferry ran aground on a sandbar in the Yukon River. That was blamed on a spring ice jam depositing sediment in new spots, but Turcotte said at the time that low water may have also been a factor.

Dawson City’s George Black ferry ran aground on a sandbar in October. Hydrologist Benoit Turcotte said the river’s low water may have been a factor. (Submitted by Ev Pollock)

Turcotte is in Dawson City again this week, surveying spring break up on the river.

“Right now, the water levels are probably the lowest they have ever been during break up,” he said.

“We can actually see mud, on the lower parts of the channel. So it’s definitely something that people are not used to here once the ice is gone — because usually the ice is actually pushed by high flows.”

Hydro shortfalls and paddling challenges

People elsewhere in the territory are also noticing the low water.

Yukon Energy is anticipating a possible shortfall in hydro power this year, that would be made up by leaning more on its LNG and diesel generators.

And recreational paddlers are also paying attention — low water can make some rivers a rougher ride in summer.

“Sometimes the boats just get a little bit more wear and tear when it’s low water,” said Trevor Braun, whose company Yukan Canoe offers canoe instruction courses in the Whitehorse area, typically on the Yukon, Takhini or Wheaton Rivers.

‘We need enough water to run courses,’ said Yukan Canoe paddling instructor Trevor Braun. (CBC)

He says it’s too soon to predict what the summer will be like for his business. But if rivers are running low, he may need to adjust.

“We need enough water to run courses,” he said.

“I’ve had to modify courses a couple of times based on water levels. Often it’s too high, and it’s not often that it’s not enough water.”

Related stories from around the North:

Canada: Canadian Arctic is warmest it’s been in 10,000 years: study, CBC News

Finland: Brush fire warnings in most of Finland this week, Yle News

Norway: Arctic Norway: temperatures on Svalbard have been above normal for 100 straight months, The Independent Barents Observer

Sweden: Groundwater levels unusually low in Sweden despite melting snow, Radio Sweden

United States: 2018 was the 4th-warmest year on record, NOAA and NASA reveal, CBC News

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