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Farmers’ Water Woes: It’s Dry … and Getting Drier… and Hotter! 

Already grappling with three consecutive dry years, Alberta's farmers now face the added challenge of El Niño causing another warm and dry winter

The last 12 months on planet Earth were the hottest in 120,000 years.

Scientists on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predict the average global temperature will rise another 4℃  this century.

They also say there isn’t a hope in hell that we can hold the temperature increase to within the hoped-for semi-safe 1.5℃ to 2℃ range unless humans take drastic action to stop pumping heat-trapping pollution into our shared atmoshpere. .

The changing climate is all too real, and it’s hitting Alberta’s farm community hard.

Farmer’s Feeling the Fallout

Already suffering from three back-to-back-to-back dry years,  El Niño is expected to bring another warm and dry winter to the prairies.

El Niño, which means ‘The Boy’ in Spanish, is a natural climate pattern that happens when the ocean in the central and eastern parts of the Pacific Ocean becomes warmer than usual. This warmth can affect weather around the world, leading to changes like heavy rainfall in some areas and hot dry seasons in Alberta.

Great for golfing, terrible for farming.

Drought conditions persist across southern Alberta: Nose Hill Park, Calgary | Oxana lyashenko | Unsplash

“We’ve been talking to our members, and I think 2024 is shaping up to be about water and forest fire too. Our members feel it,” Rural Municipalities of Alberta (RMA) president Paul McLaughlin said during an RMA conference on Nov. 9.

Farmers are feeling it big time.

More than 20 districts have declared agricultural disasters due to drought. The majority of them are in southern Alberta.

One of those communities is Pincher Creek.

Rick Lemiere, the Reeve for the Municipal District of Pincher Creek, called the situation historic and unprecedented in a CityNews report.

“We like to think we’re in control, but we’re definitely not,” he said. “We always looked at the forecast, and they say 70-80 percent chance, and you think “Ah, we’ll get something then” as it gets closer to the day — down to 30 (percent) and then, nothing.”

“I’ve tried to get ahold of some older, past counsellors, and they can never remember declaring an [agricultural disaster], so I don’t know if it’s the first time we’ve done it or not, but I’ve only been on Council six years, and we haven’t done it during that time.”

Pincher Creek area residents have been under extreme water restrictions since mid-August. 

It’s so bad that the municipal district has been hauling water for its hamlets and villages for up to $8,000 daily.

Drought Report

The Alberta government laid out the harsh details about this prolonged drought in a Ministry update on agriculture and irrigation early last month.

It’s a sobering read. 

Parts of the southern, central and northeast regions run moisture deficits between 300 mm and 400 mm.

“Overall, most of Alberta’s agricultural areas have been running long-term moisture deficits extending back over at least the past 3 years. This has had an impact of the overall health of the landscape and is reflected in dwindling surface water supplies and poor growth in both native and planted perennial species,” according to the update.

The government dispatch concluded with the following statement.

“Many parts of Alberta are long due to a wet cycle. Multiple years of below-normal moisture regimes are taking their toll,”

Speaking at the recent RMA conference, RJ Sigurdson, Minister of Agriculture and Irrigation, said there will likely be declines in water levels in reservoirs across the province in 2024.

He also said the province will need a “very strategic plan” to deal with the water deficits.

“We need to be proactive next year,” Sigurdson said.

The province has a plan – the Agricultural Drought Risk Management Plan – but it was put in place in  2010, and a lot has changed since then.

In the meantime, the governments of Alberta and Canada are doling out $165 million to ranchers affected by drought and extreme weather conditions as part of the Canada-Alberta Drought Livestock Assistance Program.

Nov 30, 2023 drought conditions across Canada
Nov 30, 2023 drought conditions across Canada | agr.gc.ca

City Concerns 

The dry winter is not only a concern for farmers. City folk are feeling it too.

Calgary was built where two rivers meet–the Elbow and the Bow. The former had its lowest flows in more than two decades this year. The latter hasn’t experienced such low water in over a hundred years, since 1911.

David Sauchyn, director of the University of Regina’s Prairie Adaptation Research Collaborative, says the climate conversation needs to be about more than greenhouse gas emission reductions. He says we need to talk about adaptation measures because all climate models point to more serious droughts in the future.

Glaciers are shrinking and so too are snowpacks. By studying tree rings on the eastern slopes of the Rockies, Sauchyn knows there have been much more severe droughts over the past thousand years.

But there’s a difference today.

“… now it’s occurring in a warmer climate, which really amplifies the severity,” Sauchyn told the Globe and Mail

Business as Usual?

Dried prairie slough and fence near Cochrane with sky filled with smoke from forest fires | Darwin Wiggett | oopoomoo

Meanwhile, the government of Alberta seems to still be operating business-as-usual promotion of oil and gas production. They say it’s ‘green energy’ because they plan on using still unproven carbon capture technology in hopes of reducing emissions.  

That’s one reason Premier Smith wants to delay the clean energy target until 2050 instead of 2035, as outlined by the feds for Canada as a whole.

And that’s not all, the government of Alberta has paused approvals of renewable projects, is finding loopholes to approve new foreign-owned coal mines in the province and is spending millions fighting the feds on clean energy targets.

All while Alberta burns and dries up, leaving many in the province harmed by a changing climate.

When will the Alberta government begin taking the changing climate seriously? 

When drought dries up all our food production, and water sources and fire razes the province?

Why the rear-view mirror policies and not forward-looking ones? Our future depends on it.

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