OTTAWA -- Hope for running water to begin flowing in some Island Lake-area homes this year is fading as Mother Nature's warm blanket is keeping the vital winter-road network from opening on time.
While many Manitobans greeted the record-breaking, above-freezing temperatures this week with gusto, northerners in remote First Nations are facing possible food and fuel shortages due to the road issues.
And this year the roads are also vital for shipping $5.5 million in supplies to improve access to running water for thousands of residents in the four Island Lake communities.
"It's too warm," said Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak Grand Chief David Harper.
In November, Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan pledged the funding when he agreed to support a Liberal motion calling on Ottawa to start making progress in bringing running water to northern communities by the spring. More than half the homes in Island Lake have no indoor plumbing, leaving several thousand people to rely on water toted in pails from community water pipes and area lakes. Slop pails are used instead of toilets, and many residents have less access to clean water each day than is recommended by the United Nations for refugee camps.
A study of the situation done last year found it will cost about $29 million to retrofit the homes and provide trucked water and sewer services to all the homes in Island Lake.
The initial funding of $5.5 million was set aside specifically to get supplies trucked in on the winter roads so some work can begin this year.
That first pool of cash is intended to buy enough supplies to retrofit 100 homes in Red Sucker Lake, Wasagamack, Garden Hill and St. Theresa Point with indoor plumbing pipes and fixtures such as toilets and bathtubs. Four new water trucks, five new sewage trucks and materials to build garages to store them with are also on the shopping list.
But all of it has to be shipped on the winter roads because it is cost-prohibitive to fly the supplies in.
The weather in the Island Lake area hit -12 C Thursday, far above the -20 C temperatures needed for rivers, lakes and the ground to freeze enough to support winter-road construction and traffic. The forecast doesn't look to go down that low until late next week.
Larry Halayko, director of contract services for Manitoba Infrastructure, said the weather has delayed the roads by a couple of weeks. Some roads are usually open by now but he anticipates the first roads won't open until late January. Many won't be ready until February.
Harper said he worries there may be just two or three weeks of available time once the roads finally do open.
With uncertainty about when the roads will open, securing trucks to bring in the shipments is also troublesome, he said.
"We're very worried about what is going to transpire," he said. "By this time we should already have half-loads coming up."
About 2,200 kilometres of roads are built each winter across frozen lakes, rivers and muskeg. They are a vital connection for 30,000 people living in 20 remote communities which are accessed only by air the rest of the year.
About 2,500 shipments of everything from groceries to vehicles are transported each winter. It helps keep the costs of certain things down since flying supplies in adds a hefty price tag to consumer costs.
A spokesman for Duncan said Thursday the government is in contact with the First Nations affected and plans are in place to deliver essential supplies to communities if necessary.
But it's unclear whether supplies for housing retrofits and water trucks would be considered essentials. Harper said a shortened season could mean only some of the supplies get shipped in at best.
Roads closed, for now
Number of days winter-road network was open*:
*Reflects the number of days any of the roads were open but most years several are open for less time, leaving certain communities with road access for a much shorter period of time.
"Ú Average annual cost between 2007 and 2011: $13 million
"Ú Total cost to build and maintain winter roads since 2006: $65.1 million
-- Province of Manitoba/Aboriginal and Northern Affairs Canada