Alberta's Drought Dilemma: Navigating Water Scarcity and Wildfire Risks

There have been quite a few news articles in recent months about how many areas in Alberta are dealing with drought conditions (particularly in the southern regions of the province) and highlighting concerns about how these conditions may be exacerbated during the summer months. According to the Government of Alberta website (alberta.ca/drought-current-conditions), Alberta is currently sitting at stage 4 of the province’s 5-stage water shortage management response plan. When one also considers the unseasonably warm and dry winter conditions experienced by much of the province this season, it is a potentially alarming situation, to say the least.

The current drought conditions in the province, combined with a severe lack of winter precipitation as we enter an early wildfire season, are especially concerning for a community like Swan Hills, which is entirely surrounded by thick boreal forests.

The Grizzly Gazette contacted the Ministry of Environment and Protected Areas for more information about this situation, specifically about the current drought conditions in Alberta, how this may impact the upcoming wildfire season, and how the Government of Alberta is responding to this situation. In response, we received this detailed response from Ryan Fournier, Press Secretary to Minister of the Environment and Protected Areas of Alberta, Rebecca Schulz:

“There are many areas in Alberta that are currently experiencing drought conditions. Although most of the 51 water shortage advisories currently in place [rivers.alberta.ca/?ShowAdvisories=true] are in central and southern Alberta, and many areas of northern Alberta are also under an advisory. There is no water shortage advisory in place for the Swan Hills area, but that does not mean that the area is not experiencing dry conditions.

Recent analysis of provincial snowpack data shows that most major rivers in southern and central Alberta can expect flows this spring and summer that are well below average but higher than those seen during Alberta’s last severe drought in 2001.

Full details on snowpack conditions in the mountains and plains, precipitation maps, reservoir storage figures and our long-term outlook for river flow volumes (North Saskatchewan, Red Deer, Bow, Oldman and Milk river basins) over the March to September period can be found via the February 2024 Water Supply Outlook [rivers.alberta.ca/Contents/WaterSupply/2024/2].

In late February or early March, crews will be out measuring snow depth at locations across the Swan Hills, and these results will be available on the Alberta River Basin website [rivers.alberta.ca] as part of the Snow Course Data and Historical Rankings report.

Alberta’s Wildfire Management Branch is aware of the drought-like conditions that areas in the province are experiencing, and should drought conditions affect water availability, Alberta Wildfire has contracts for water delivery in place when needed.

We took action to prepare for worsening drought conditions in 2024. This includes creating a Drought Command Team, launching a new Water Advisory Committee, drafting a 2024 Drought Emergency Response Plan and conducting advanced modelling. We are also undertaking the largest water-sharing negotiations in Alberta’s history to help maximize our water supply.”

Hopefully, the precautions taken by the provincial government, combined with their contingency planning, are up to the considerable task of maintaining the province’s water supply while also allocating enough water to support any necessary wildfire-fighting activities.

Dean LaBerge, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Grizzly Gazette