Were this a normal year, Lake Geraldine, the city of Iqaluit’s reservoir, would be nearly full right now. Nunavut, however, has seen a lack of rain this summer that has left the local water department unable to refill the reservoir after its level began to dwindle this spring as the city dealt with leaky pipes, a stubborn dump fire and efforts to flush a municipal water system that had been contaminated by diesel. The situation led city officials to declare a water emergency on Friday and to request permission to take measures that would allow them to fill Lake Geraldine before the winter freeze sets in.
This is the third time since 2018 that Iqaluit has called a water emergency, and it is its most dire to date. As part of the measure, the city’s 7,800 residents have been asked to conserve water, but, for now, the declaration is more a signal to public authorities of the seriousness of the matter. Importantly, though, declaring an emergency gives the city council grounds to request permission to pump more water from the Niaqunguuq River (also known as the Apex River), the city’s back-up water supply, and Unnamed Lake, a nearby body of water that was also tapped into during the 2019 water emergency, as well as in 2020 and 2021.
Piping water the three and half kilometres from Unnamed Lake to the Niaqunguuq River had already been taking place this year as well. Since June, the city has pumped 200,000 cubic metres from the Niaqunguuq River into Lake Geraldine. But, with water levels at their lowest in four decades, the city reckons it will need to pump 500,000 cubic metres into Lake Geraldine by October. That is just a shade more than was needed in 2019, when the city estimated it would need some 400,000 cubic metres but wound up pumping somewhat more. In 2018, the city needed 200,000 cubic metres from the Niaqunguuq River.
In the past, the NIRB, the territorial body that assesses the environmental impacts of projects of this sort, has noted that the amounts of water Iqaluit is asking to pump are far in excess of the amount it is allowed under its agreement with the territorial administration, but it has otherwise concluded that doing so does not cause significant harm to the environment or to people.
Although this year is far from normal, it has brought the city’s attention to the state of its water system and what it can do to reduce water use. One problem — leaky pipes — is already being addressed and could have a significant impact: a city survey of its water system found that water loss, stemming primarily from 45 major leaks, amounted to some 40% of water use. The city is also asking Iqalummiut to conserve by doing things like not washing their cars at home, and by taking showers, not baths, when washing themselves. Ultimately, though, solving Iqaluit’s water problems will mean addressing the amount of water that goes into its reservoir, not how much flows out of it.
This is because Lake Geraldine, an artificial lake, was designed to contain enough water to supply the city for a year. But because of the environmental and the demographic changes that are going on around it, it can no longer do so. Of its estimated capacity of 1.8 million cubic metres, about three quarters are used during the winter. In normal years, this works. In years when natural inflows and precipitation in the spring and summer are not enough to replenish it (as has been the case in recent years) or when demand is high (as was the case this year) it does not, and the stage is set for a shortage. Increased evaporation, warmer weather and declining levels of rainfall has made this balance ever harder to maintain. So, too, is Iqaluit’s growing population. To be sure, the number of Iqalummiut declined slightly last year, but since 1977 the city’s population has quadrupled, and by 2050 it may be using twice as much water each year as Lake Geraldine can hold.
Unnamed Lake could provide water for an estimated 17,000 Iqalummiut, and it has already shown it is feasible, making it the most likely solution. Should it not pan out for some reason, the Sylvia Grinnell River has also been identified as possible source. Ottawa has pledged C$214 million (€163 million) to help pay for a long-term solution, but it will take several years to work out all the details, and then several more until work is finished and a stable water supply again becomes the norm.
Kevin McGwin, PolarJournal
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