Finding a way forward for the Great Falls Quarry

Image: the Great Falls Dam and Quarry

By Don Norman

In the wake of the drowning at the Great Falls Quarry earlier this month, a debate has ensued in the community about what should be done about people using the quarry as a swimming hole. It’s a complicated on-going issue that has come to a head as a result of the tragic accident on July 12.

Since the drowning, Hydro has closed down access to the site and are taking measures to increase security and monitoring of the walkway over the dam.

The RM of Alexander met for the first time since the drowning, to discuss the issue at their regular meeting on Tuesday. Several letters complaining about the nuances of what Alexander Mayor, Jack Brisco in an interview with CBC News were on the agenda. “What the heck was the Mayor thinking?” Read one letter. “Possibly the most ill-informed statement imaginable,” read another letter in reference to Brisco’s comment, “this place is beautiful, and as long as we can figure out what we can do in a safe manner, it could be good for everyone.”

The Advocate was also criticized for including a blurb in their recently published magazine “Destinations” about the site being a popular attraction for local teens. “[Destinations Editor] Don Norman and his team need to represent better than that and certainly should know the subject before encouraging people to visit,” read the letter. The RM did not reveal the identities of the letter writers.

However, at the council meeting, while the concerns of the residents were discussed, and concern over the tragic death was acknowledged by all, there was by no means a consensus that Brisco had misspoken.  “Like everyone else, I was saddened by the incident, but not at all surprised –  particularly because of Covid,” said Ward 3 Councillor, Diane Dubé. “We’re not the only community that has been inundated with tourists and young people looking for places to go,” she continued. “Pinawa has experienced a very similar problem and they seem to have solved it by monitoring and charging per vehicle,” she said.

Dubé noted that whether we like it or not, the quarry has become a destination where young people like to go. “We knew this was a problem. It’s been going on for years. It’s just escalated this year,” she said. “We met with Hydro in last September. They should have gotten back to us over the winter so we could have had something in place.”

For her part, Dubé said she would be disappointed if the quarry had to be closed. “I would not like to see it shut down completely, particularly because so many people who enjoy going there,” she said. “It has the potential of being a bigger tourism destination if it is well managed with some partners who are willing to participate,” she said. “Nothing is impossible when people work together.”

However, it is a complicated issue. Neither the RM nor Hydro actually own the land where the quarry sits. It is crown land that Hydro leased decades ago to mine rock to use at the dam site. Currently the easiest access to the site is across the dam from Great Falls. But it is also accessible on the north side of the River along a section of the Red River North Trail that extends from Broadlands Road. So, even if Hydro does restrict access across the dam, it will just mean that people access the quarry from the other side.

Complicating the matter further, is the fact that back in 2005, Hydro signed a deal with the Trans-Canada Trail (now called the Great Trail) to use the dam walkway as part of their trail.

Quarry goers parked in Great Falls

Alexander CAO, Don Dowle encapsulated the dilemma that the RM faces. “There will need to be leadership from this municipality to make it happen. The province isn’t going to care one way or another. They would probably rather see it closed. Hydro would probably rather see it closed. If it is to be reopened, this municipality would need to lead that effort and champion it. Otherwise, my guess it may just stay closed indefinitely,” he said.

To try to clear up some of the confusion, a virtual meeting was set up that included stakeholders from the RM of Alexander, Manitoba Hydro, the Province of Manitoba (Mines Branch and Conservation) and members from the Great Trail, Trails Manitoba and the Red River North Trail. The meeting took place the day after the council meeting.

The group met for an hour, there were sixteen attendees  with the objective to determine whether the access to the trail system and quarry site across the hydro dam was to remain closed permanently or indefinitely, or when exactly it might re-open and if not what other options might be available.

The meeting was not open to the public, but according to RM CAO, Don Dowle, Hydro made a commitment to bring the matter to the senior corporate leadership and provide an answer as soon as possible. “We asked that the decision be made and announced by the end of this week,” he said. “They certainly understand the importance to the community and will work to get that answer as soon as possible – to be clear it will not be made at the local level but at the corporate level and they will communicate the decision with us and the community.”

Dowle said that following input from all participants, the decision was made to form a smaller working group. “Once we know whether or when the dam access might re-open we can start talking about other options,” he said. The prime focus was public safety – both the safety of quarry users and public travelling across the dam (a working industrial site that is considered extremely high risk). Other factors include the impact on local residents including parking concerns, garbage & litter, noise, vandalism etc. “Any possible solution must address the local resident concerns and all agreed that they should/will be included in the discussion before any future decisions are made,” said Dowle.

Dan Lester, executive director of the Red River North Trail was also at the meeting. Lester is trying to remain optimistic about it, but he has some concerns. “I’m on wait and see and hoping for the best,” he said. He and the representatives from the other trail association would like to see access across the dam remain open, but deferred comment until a decision was made. “As soon as they make a decision, that’s when we react,” said Lester. But he did say it would certainly complicate things for the trail systems that the organizations have built in recent years. He noted that without access to the dam, they would no longer be a linear land trail. “It’s a linking trail,” he said. “If it came down to a major closure, do we become a water trail?”

Dowle is cautiously optimistic about finding a way forward. “There is still a long way to go and a lot of uncertainty about the dam access,” he said. “As soon as we get clarity on the access closure, there is a desire and willingness among all stakeholders (including Hydro) to work towards some possible solutions,” he said.

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