By Collin Gallant
Southern Alberta Newspapers
Medicine Hat is now in discussions with the province and other municipalities about potential water shortages and contingency plans next spring if dry, warm winter weather persists.
The issue has been a topic of conversation all summer in southern Alberta, with the South Saskatchewan River essentially missing its traditional June peak, and huge sand bars appearing over the summer as virtually no rain fell between May and late October.
“The forecasts are quite bleak at the rest for this year due to El Nino,” said city environmental utilities manager Pat Bohan to a committee meeting on Dec. 7, referring to a generally warmer, drier weather cycle that has arrived over North America.
“We’re monitoring the snowpack quite closely, but it’s difficult to forecast. Alberta Environment is advising us that is going to be a challenging spring and summer and 2025, potentially, could be worse.”
“The advice to the public is that we may have to escalate water shortage strategies next summer.”
Irrigation districts are also telling members they will provide early winter updates that could alter their decisions ahead of the growing season. Ranchers through most of the south were again subject to special tax provisions in 2023 that allow them to carry forward income related to reducing herds rather than adding carrying costs of feed.
It was the driest year in 99 years of record keeping at several locations on the Bow River, and among the 10 driest years at Lethbridge, parts of the Milk River basin and Red Deer.
Flow on the Oldman River was only 37 per cent of normal from July to September, and the same figure on the Bow was 54 per cent.
That led Alberta Environment to issue an RFP earlier this month to help aid the creation of water sharing agreements.
“We cannot make it rain or snow, but we are preparing in case the province faces water shortages next year,” said Minister Rebecca Schulz in a release. “This RFP will help complement the work my department already has underway to ensure that we make the most out of every drop in the coming months.”
This summer Medicine Hat signed on to a working group led by Taber-area MLA Grant Hunter that is compiling water licence and water availability along the Highway 3 corridor. As well, the city is considering a funding request for reservoir and spillway construction.
City elected officials told Southern Alberta Newspapers it is important that Medicine Hat takes part in water management talks.
“We’re at the mercy of a lot of upstream decisions … it’s important for us to be involved in those discussions,” said Coun. Alison Van Dyke. “As we potentially move into another year of drought, there has to be a group effort figuring out how to ensure there is enough water for municipal use, industry and agriculture as well.”
This past summer, Alberta moved to Stage 4 of a five-phase warning system for water availability.
Pincher Creek introduced water restrictions in the mid-summer due to low levels, and downstream, Leader, Sask. enacted a state of emergency in December to move ahead quickly with relocating its water intake system allowing it to draw water at lower levels.
Some irrigation districts lowered allocations in the summer before returning them to normal. Most closed their season earlier than usual, allowing additional time to refill reservoirs ahead of winter.
Officials with the St. Mary River Irrigation District stated that its off-stream storage levels are actually better than some reservoirs on the main river system, but overall, the district is “below traditional winter storage levels.”
“We’re obviously monitoring things very closely,” said David Westwood, general manager of SMRID. He said members could be alerted to the 2024 allocation earlier than usual this winter.
“At this stage we’re starting to make plans about not having a traditional water supply and what that looks like for our irrigators and everyone else in the basin as well.”
City of Medicine Hat officials repeatedly stated this past summer that the local system was not in trouble and could operate at levels much lower. Voluntary measures, like limiting lawn sprinklers to nighttime use, were promoted, but no restrictions were put in place.