Growing Drought and Water Concerns Ahead

Going into 2024, Alberta is starting with a handicap as low soil moisture levels extend from the border with Montana to the Northwest Territories. Canada Research Chair in Water Resources and Climate Change and professor at the University of Saskatchewan, John Pomeroy, said in his keynote address at Alberta Irrigation District Association’s 2024 conference held earlier this month. Pomeroy identified that groundwater levels are depleted in many areas and there are reservoirs in the mountains that are as much as five metres below their normal storage capacity and ones in the prairie region of the province used for irrigation, have even lower levels. “If this carries on,” he said, “we can be in for more extreme drought in 2024 than we had in 2023. We do not have the storage that helped us out a bit in 2023 and snowpacks look even lower and it was 21 degrees in Maple Creek a few days ago.”

Pomeroy continued saying the unprecedented weather events, including rain at high elevations in the Rockies and high elevation snowmelt in January, contributed to significant loss of the overall snowpack by late January, and that, combined with what started as an extremely low mountain snowpack and record high temperature, puts Alberta in an unfavourable situation coming into spring. This, he told the conference attendees, is what he thinks the future holds. Climate change modeling anticipates early mid-winter melts will become the norm rather than the exception, he said, with generally wetter conditions mostly in the form of rain in winter and spring and generally drier conditions in late summer on the prairies. Over the course of the 20th century, the peak mountain runoff and the high-demand period for water usage overlapped, but climate change in the 21st century will see a different timing between mountain runoff and high water demand, potentially by months. With that in mind, Pomeroy believes that infrastructure needs to change and even though it could be a massive undertaking, it might be essential. “We’ll have more mid-winter melts, runoff events like this and we do have to design systems that can reliably capture this,” he said.

Conditions in Saskatchewan are not much better. Many farmers across the province were hoping for a snow-filled winter to help replenish moisture levels in the topsoil, but as Christmas and New Year came and went without any significant snow, the hopes for an above-normal runoff withered. Without that above-average runoff, the Water Security Agency warned that drought conditions are expected to continue or even worsen in the spring. While Lake Diefenbaker is better suited, than reservoirs in Alberta, to withstand water shortages and multi-year droughts due to its sheer size and its ability to capture and store water year-round, it too is affected by the timing of runoffs. Since the mid-sixties when the lake was first filled, March and April inflows have dropped in half, mostly due, Pomeroy said, to filling the reservoirs upstream in Alberta. Saskatchewan gets what Alberta does not use, so, when Alberta is filling their reservoirs in the spring, which means not as much water comes downstream to Lake Diefenbaker.

In the preliminary spring runoff report the WSA released on Thursday, February 22, it reported that the province will see below-normal to well-below-normal runoff in most areas. The below-average snow conditions combined with an overall dry fall have produced a “well-below-normal runoff expectation” for the majority of the province. The far southeast corner of the province around Weyburn and Estevan had slightly better soil moisture conditions going into the winter and when combined with a somewhat more substantive snowpack, has resulted in a runoff expectation that is merely below normal instead of well below normal. The full spring runoff report will be released by the WSA in March, but according to the preliminary report, the WSA maintained water levels at Lake Diefenbaker 3.5 metres higher over the winter to ensure there are water supplies in the event of low mountain runoff. The agency also kept higher winter levels at other major reservoirs and reported they are collaborating with communities to identify their water supply needs and to help create drought preparedness plans.

On February 23, 2024, the Calgary Herald ran an article revealing that the Crowsnest River in southern Alberta ran dry the day before upstream of the village of Cowley, a group Crowsnest Headwaters shared in a news release. The Crowsnest River is one of the sources of water for the South Saskatchewan River system. ( The Crowsnest River has its source in the Rockies and meanders through southwestern Alberta until it feeds into the Oldman River near Lundbreck, about 100 kilometres west of Lethbridge. The Oldman River eventually merges with the Bow River east of Calgary to form the South Saskatchewan River. “This is more than a wake-up call,” said Crowsnest Headwaters communications co-ordinator David Thomas. “It’s a gut punch for residents, ranchers, First Nations communities, and everyone who depends on water from the Oldman River system.”

“If southern Alberta's drought persists much longer, the reservoir will become a dead pool, creating a water crisis for more of the towns, cities, farms, and businesses that depend on the Oldman River downstream of the reservoir,” Thomas said. The Oldman River, the article shared, is at about one-third of its normal flow, and the Oldman Reservoir is currently at 30 percent of capacity, well below normal levels for this time of year. Ryan Fournier, press secretary to Environment and Protected Areas Minister Rebecca Schulz, is reported to have said in a statement to Postmedia, that the ministry has been and continues to work closely with the Municipal District of Pincher Creek and all the impacted communities. The Alberta government is reportedly in Stage 4 out of five in its water shortage management response plan, and there are currently fifty-one water shortage advisories across the province.

The ongoing drought conditions in western Canada bring about concerns for a heightened fire season as well as water shortages for those communities that utilize surface water and the many farms, small towns, and villages that depend on underground aquifers. When it comes to water, we are all in it together.

Carol Baldwin, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Wakaw Recorder