Riverhurst Ferry in Sask. beached indefinitely because of low water levels

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The Riverhurst Ferry opening is delayed and it won't be able to operate until the water levels rise.   (Saskatchewan Highway Hotline/Facebook - image credit)
The Riverhurst Ferry opening is delayed and it won't be able to operate until the water levels rise. (Saskatchewan Highway Hotline/Facebook - image credit)

Spring is well underway in Saskatchewan, but one of the province's busiest ferries still hasn't been able to open.

The Riverhurst Ferry, located northwest of Moose Jaw, typically transports about 30,000 vehicles annually over the South Saskatchewan River, according to the Ministry of Highways, which operates the vessel.

But water levels are too low for it to begin operations. Levels in Lake Diefenbaker are about a metre-and-a-half below normal for this time of year, according to a spokesperson for the Ministry of Highways. Diefenbaker is a human-made lake, located north of the Riverhurst Ferry and fed by the South Saskatchewan River.

The government has recorded low levels like this before,but none of the ferry crews are aware of a time when they've been unable to begin operation because of shallow water, the spokesperson said in a statement.

The profile of the shoreline has changed because of sediment build up, so the level of the entire lake must be higher for the ferry to operate than it used to be, they said.

A few factors are contributing to levels on this particular system, said Saman Razavi, an associate professor at the School of Environment and Sustainability at the University of Saskatchewan and a core member of Global Institute for Water Security. He has studied the South Saskatchewan River basin for several years.

Climate change altering norms 

The dozens of reservoirs upstream in Alberta, which can store and control water, have minimal impact and regional precipitation also has minimal affect on the system, he said.

This means year-to-year variability is dictated by nature — most specifically the snow accumulation and melt happening upstream in the Rocky Mountains. Razavi said the variability has become much more intense and augmented because of climate change in the past two decades.

Peak water flows from the mountains have historically come around June, Razavi said, but April and May levels this year have been well below the long-term averages — not the lowest on record, but reminiscent of levels seen during the 2001 drought.

According to the government, Lake Diefenbaker didn't reach optimal height until June last year. The Water Security Agency is hopeful water levels will rise by mid-June again this year.

Razavi said the low levels can serve as a reminder of what climate change will do to water flow — and people who rely on it — in the coming years.

"This could be an indication that [we] need to be more basically cautious and begin more hedging in water resources this time of the year," Razavi said, noting the norms are shifting.

"We see more extreme types of climates in more recent years, and so with climate change, we have a change in average behaviour."

Razavi said this has been demonstrated by both more severe dry, hot periods — like the conditions experienced in the area last year — and extreme wet periods.

It's critical to keep these growing extremes and climate change top of mind when it comes to water resource management and planning, especially on the Prairies, he said.

Canada is seen by other countries as being freshwater-rich, but Razavi said there are some southern areas where water could become scarce.

"Western Canada, in particular the Prairie region, has some water stress that may not be really obvious to many people. And under climate change, those water stresses might be escalated," he said.

"We just need to be aware of that and try to build — more actively — some resilience."

There is currently no estimate for when operation of the Riverhurst Ferry will resume.

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