By Cal Braid
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
On Dec. 20, Rebecca Schulz, Alberta’s minister of environment and protected areas, addressed the bone-dry conditions that we’ve all observed in southern Alberta for a while now. She released a public letter outlining the province’s forecast and plan to ensure water security in an ongoing season of water scarcity.
An El Nino cycle is in action for the first time in seven years, and unless one has been confined to a sensory deprivation tank, the balmy winter feels strange, maybe even startling. Perhaps the startled feeling stems from a justifiable trend towards greater public awareness of environmental stewardship in the face of global warming. Towards the end of 2023, news outlets featured stories emerging from COP28, the UN Climate Change Conference in Dubai, where world leaders gathered to meet and discuss their policies, goals and targets for curbing emissions and staving off environmental disaster. Either way, the issue is no longer simmering on the back burner.
“It’s causing less snow and rain, along with higher temperatures, around the world this winter,” Schulz said of El Nino. “Recent forecasts indicate that there is a 62 per cent chance that the unusually warm and dry conditions that we have experienced could continue until June 2024.”
She said the Province has five stages in its water management plan. Stage 1 is a minor drought; Stage 5 is a province-wide emergency.
“We are currently in Stage 4,” she said. “Our government is now preparing for the possibility of a serious drought next year. The good news is that Alberta is up to the challenge.”
For the time being, the M.D. of Taber is afloat. Chris Eagan, Town of Taber’s director of planning, engineering and operations, told the Times that the town’s water supply is stable for the winter. “The Town ensured our two raw water reservoirs were full at the end of irrigation season. We don’t anticipate any shortages this winter as a result.” He said the town has 500,000 cubic metres of water in those reservoirs, approximately three months’ supply at typical winter consumption rates.
In the Bow River Irrigation District, general manager Richard Phillips said that the winter storage in McGregor, Travers, and Little Bow reservoirs at the end of the season was 287,000 acre feet, or 88 per cent of normal winter storage (326,000 acre feet).
“The full storage target for early summer is 400,000 acre feet, but we often don’t get them quite that full. Most reservoirs in most districts have winter target levels that are less than the full storage levels for summer.” Nevertheless, he was optimistic enough to point out that he had “good news” to report in his 2023 year-end wrap up with this newspaper.
For the agricultural sector, it’s a crucial concern.
“Our government has announced up to $165 million in federal-provincial drought relief for livestock producers,” Schulz said. On Oct. 30, R.J. Sigurdson, minister of agriculture and irrigation, made an announcement notifying producers that Alberta’s Agriculture Financial Services Corporation (AFSC) was delivering a recovery infusion of $165 million to support livestock producers affected by drought and extreme growing conditions in 2023. Since then, livestock producers with grazing animals have been eligible to apply for financial support to help cover the years’ losses.
“Eligible producers could access up to $150 per head to help maintain their breeding herd in drought affected regions,” Sigurdson said.
When asked about the minimum requirements for receiving assistance, he said that producers must have altered their usual grazing practices for more than 21 days in 2023 and also have incurred losses in order to manage and maintain breeding animals. In addition, they must have a minimum of 15 animals per type of livestock. The AFSC website links to a regional map showing the most drought-impacted areas of the province. The shaded regions are the ‘eligible zones’ and are located primarily north and northwest of Edmonton and south from Bonnyville along the Saskatchewan border and almost everywhere south of Ponoka.
The issue isn’t just an agricultural one though; it’s a top priority for numerous industries and municipalities, too. In her letter, Schulz said the department she oversees has “stood up a Drought Command Team and work is underway to finalize a Drought Emergency Plan. Meetings have been held with communities, farmers, businesses, and others to prepare. Many have already taken action to implement conservation measures and adapt to reduced water levels.” She said that this past summer and fall, Calgary, Medicine Hat, and other communities “adopted voluntary and mandatory restrictions on water use to help Alberta’s stressed river basins. I commend the collective actions taken so far by so many people throughout Alberta.”
She said that going forward, the department will be monitoring snowpack, rainfall, river levels, and actual water use to develop an “early warning capacity.” The information, along with scientific modelling will be used to assess the risk of drought this year.
Although the ‘giants’ of water and energy consumption like agriculture and industry use far greater quantities than individuals, families and small businesses, those sectors also provide huge economic and material resources to counties and municipalities. It has a downstream effect; consumers providing for consumers. Essentially everyone has a role to play in the collective use of resources.
Schulz said, “We cannot make it rain or snow, but all of us have a role to play. Conserving water can help your community, as well as Albertans downstream from you. In the coming months, we will all have to pull together to secure our province’s water supply.”
Go to alberta.ca/drought for ongoing updates.