What does a “State of Agriculture Disaster” mean for Alberta (and the rest of our country)?

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Over the last few months, we’ve watched Alberta counties and municipal districts declare local states of agriculture emergency. On Friday, Agriculture Minister Oneil Carlier approved the decision to declare Alberta in a state of agricultural disaster.

A warm winter coupled with intense drought and hail have been at the heart of many of individual counties’ decisions, and largely the reason for the provincial declaration. The Weather Network, which developed this map, says that parts of the province have “experienced 1-in-50 and 1-in-100 year drought conditions” so far this summer. It’s a similar story in Saskatchewan, where our easterly neighbours are suffering dry conditions that have lasted several weeks to months.

 

But what does it mean?

 

When a county or municipal district declares agricultural disaster, the Agriculture Financial Services Corporation pays out money to support farmers around the province. However, crop insurance isn’t enough this year, where the hardship has included not only drought, but also grasshopper infestations.

Producers are worrying they’ll have to reduce their herds of livestock, both due to the cost as well as lack of availability of food. Producers might not have enough hay to sustain their herds throughout the winter1.

So far, the Alberta government has cut rental fees to help farmers pump water to fill their dams and dugouts, and is actively working to identify more lands for public grazing2.

But the reaches of the drought go much farther than individual farmers.

Crop yields are expected to be about a quarter of the five-year average. Retail beef prices are expected to continue to climb into next year, and could cause Canada to start importing more beef. It’s the same story with pork.

 

As climate change increases the likelihood and prevalence of extreme weather, it will be increasingly important for Alberta to be prepared. One study has shown the importance of investing in irrigation, which could generate three dollars for every 1 dollar invested to fight extreme droughts.

 

What do you think about investing in irrigation? Or do you think there are other solutions for being prepared for drought in the future?

 

Resources

 

Mertz, E. (July 15, 2015). Several Alberta counties consider declaring states of agricultural disaster. Retrieved from http://globalnews.ca/news/2109660/dry-weather-causes-state-of-agricultural-disaster-in-parkland-county/.

 

The Canadian Press. (August 22, 2015). Alberta declares agricultural losses from extreme weather a ‘disaster’. Retrieved from http://www.ctvnews.ca/canada/alberta-declares-agricultural-losses-from-extreme-weather-a-disaster-1.2529087.

 

Martins, D. (August 23, 2015). Agricultural disaster declared in Alberta. Here’s why. Retrieved from http://www.theweathernetwork.com/news/articles/disaster-declared-as-albertas-drought-continues/56076/.

 

 

What is Alberta’s Water Future?

You might have read our blog post back in July talking about WWF’s Canada-wide assessment of our most prominent watersheds. Or our post about the drought-like conditions affecting much of Alberta. WWF’s ambitious Canadian watershed project, along with flooding, wildfires, and drought across our province this summer, have gotten us thinking – what is Alberta’s water future?

Agriculture, urban development, and industrial needs all put pressure on our reserves or ground and surface water. So does your and my personal use.

Of course, water supplies replenish themselves, but our growing population along with climate change are making this cycle, and the availability of our water supply, more variable. With Alberta’s population expected to almost double by 2040, the majority of which will be seen in the Edmonton-Calgary corridor, where will the water we need come from?1

The University of Alberta’s Water Initiative is already working on a project mapping Alberta’s water future, and their research is looking at water supply under various climate variability and climate change scenarios. The Government of Alberta runs the Water for Life strategy, which is committed to managing and safeguarding our water resources. Alberta Innovates, Energy and Environment Solutions (AI-EES) committed $10 million in 2013 to water research projects dedicated to a number of water areas, from drinking water and security to ecosystem management and conservation.

Climate change is perhaps the most challenging component of this to map: we already know that the water cycle is becoming more uncertain due to climate change, and extreme weather is increasing in frequency. Some of these changes include changes in the duration and intensity of precipitation, decreases in snowfall and shorter, warmer winters (like the one we saw this year). We’re also seeing 100-year storms increase in frequency. But it’s not entirely clear how these changes will proceed in the future, and what we can expect over the next generations in conjunction with development, agriculture, and our own everyday needs.

Understanding our sources of ground and surface water in the province will be critical to managing it and ensuring availability for decades to come. It’s important we understand our relationship with water and how our actions will shape it, as it shapes us.

 

Resources

Government of Alberta. (2013). Water for Life. Retrieved from: http://environment.gov.ab.ca/info/library/6364.pdf.

 

Let’s have a conversation about drought.

We love water, and it’s our love for our watershed that drives us to share stories about our watershed with you. But what happens when water is in short supply? How do we start a dialogue about the lack of this precious resource?

 

Yes, we’re talking about drought.

 

This summer, our province – and the rest of Western Canada – has felt the weight of drought-like conditions. Uncontrolled wildfire, agricultural disaster, and water restrictions have affected much of the western half of our country.

 

Our own North Saskatchewan River is at its lowest flow rate in 14 years, sitting at about a third of what we usually see this time of year. A warm winter and little spring rain is being blamed.

 

The conditions are worst in Southern Alberta, where residents are being asked to use less water and temporary licenses for water use are being restricted. Thousands of hectares of wildfires blaze across Saskatchewan, Alberta, British Columbia, and Alaska.

 

But is drought like this abnormal?

 

Not exactly. Drought is unsurprising in Alberta and the rest of the prairies, and extreme droughts have been recorded in our province’s history. One of the worst droughts occurred during the Great Depression, when the prairies were plagued with swarms of grasshoppers, crop failure, erosion of topsoil, and salinization of the soil3. The drought lasted into the 1930s, and the average income of Saskatchewan farmers plunged more than 70 per cent in 5 years. This period of time was referred to as the “Dust Bowl,” and regular dust storms swept across the prairies of North America. Drought has come and gone since then, and the last drought of such magnitude struck in the 1980s4.

 

Yet, it is the continuity and widespread nature of the drought this year that is abnormal: the dry area extends from the edge of Northwest Ontario to the Pacific Ocean, and from the Mexican border to nearly the Arctic Ocean2. The drought impacts us economically and environmentally. Along with personal daily use, our province needs water for our crops, construction projects, and recreation.

 

Since our watershed receives most of its depth from snowmelt, winter warming will have increasing effects on our watershed. Climate change increases the variability of precipitation, and periods of drought may increase in frequency and length4.

 

We’re watching our watershed for the effects of this year’s drought.

 

 

Resources

 

Mertz, E. (July 9, 2015). North Saskatchewan River at lowest flow rate since 2001. Global News. Retrieved from: http://globalnews.ca/news/2101549/north-saskatchewan-river-at-lowest-flow-rates-since-2001/.

 

Mandel, Charles. (July 13, 2015). Is this drought caused by climate change? The National Observer. Retrieved from: http://www.nationalobserver.com/2015/07/13/news/drought-caused-climate-change.

 

Prairie Drought and Recovery. (2015). Canadian Geographic. Retrieved from: http://www.canadiangeographic.ca/atlas/themes.aspx?id=farming&sub=farming_20thcentury_drought&lang=En.

 

Drought in 20th Century Alberta. (2013). Alberta Water Portal. Retrieved from: http://albertawater.com/history-of-drought-in-alberta/drought-in-20th-century-alberta.

 

Water & Drought. (2015). SaskAdapt. Retreived from: http://www.parc.ca/saskadapt/adaptation-options/theme-assessments/water-drought.