From 1929 to 1937, Western Canada experienced a prolonged drought. Many farms were abandoned and farm families moved elsewhere. Is Western Canada facing another prolonged drought? What can we do to prevent it?

Current Situation

It snowed in British Columbia in January, but experts say a single snowstorm or large rainfall can’t reverse the fact that many parts of BC are facing serious drought conditions following a hot, dry summer and a warm, dry start to the winter.

From late August until early December, 3 communities in southwestern Alberta were hauling in water by truck as the water level in the nearby Oldman Reservoir was so low that the intake pipes were sucking air. The reservoir is currently at 28% capacity. It would normally be around 62-80%.

There are significant long-term water deficits across western Saskatchewan from North Battleford to Leader, and only the southeastern portion of the province reported near normal precipitation in December.

Drought conditions improved along Lake Winnipeg and in the southeastern corner of Manitoba in December, but the province remains vulnerable due to extensive drought across the prairies. River and reservoir levels continue to be low, leading to reduced hydroelectric generation capacity.

Sources of Water

There are several sources of water in Western Canada. Unfortunately, none of them are in plentiful supply at the moment.

Groundwater: Groundwater fills the cracks in the sand or rock underground. If it flows naturally out of the rock or can be pumped, it’s called an aquifer. Groundwater supplies one third of the world’s drinking water, 40% of its irrigation water, and 25% of the world’s industrial water. It’s a renewable resource but only if it’s given time to replenish. Groundwater levels are declining rapidly around the world, particularly in hot areas with intensive agriculture. John Pomeroy says, “Groundwater by Kananaskis' Marmot Creek is at its lowest levels in more than a half-century” and “in parts of Alberta where there's been drought for four or five years, we're seeing groundwater levels drop quite substantially.”

Glaciers: McBride, a village in eastern BC, has been forced to ration water since last summer when the river supplying the town’s reservoir ran dry. Glaciers used to feed the river, sustaining the water supply during periods of drought, but the glaciers have receded and no longer feed the town’s watershed. The village is looking for a new source of water.

Snowpack: Much of Canada’s precipitation comes in the form of snow. Unlike rain, snow is stored over the winter and released in the spring when it’s most needed for agriculture. Snowpacks in BC are currently 39% below normal following a record drought and the worst wildfire season on record last summer. The recent chinooks in Alberta were warm enough to melt the snowpack above the mountain tree line.

Wetlands: Marshes, swamps, and peatlands play a key role in preventing flooding, storing water, and replenishing groundwater. Dan Liddle, an Alberta farmer, says, “I’ve got enough hay to last most of the winter, and I had enough pasture to look after the cattle for the summer — mostly because I do have wetlands.” Unfortunately, the settled areas of the Prairies have lost up to 70% of their wetlands, in some areas up to 90%.

What Can We Do?

To address drought, we can use less water and save the water we do have on a personal, municipal, and provincial level.

Groundwater levels can be replenished by reducing usage (introducing pumping fees), switching to less water-intensive crops, and by deliberately recharging aquifers (collecting stormwater in leaky ponds, for example). The Nevada Supreme Court recently ruled that “the state can restrict new groundwater pumping if it will impact other users and wildlife.”

Alberta has now set up a drought command team and will be working with industry and business to reduce water usage. The province has sent letters to all 25,000 holders of water licences in Alberta to initiate water sharing agreements. Alberta municipalities are paying closer attention to bulk water sales in response to warnings of a severe drought. For example, the Mountain View Regional Water Services Commission is banning fracking operations from using water from its treatment plant.

The City of Lethbridge is developing a water conservation plan designed to encourage long-term behavioural changes in water usage. 7,000 residents responded to a survey regarding current water conservation practices and possible initiatives.

The BC Watershed Security Council has made several recommendations that could be implemented across western Canada:

“Improved water monitoring, watershed assessments, and mandatory water use reporting by industry.

Prioritization and restoration of natural infrastructure that provides water storage and reduces drought/fire/flood risk at half the cost of built infrastructure (such as wetlands, beaver dam analogues and mature forest cover)

Long-term, stable funding for drought prevention projects, including programs that reduce industrial and household water use;

Creation of regional watershed boards and water sustainability plans that implement locally-designed solutions and reduce conflict over scarce water supplies;

A $1 Billion investment in the BC Watershed Security Fund so that communities across B.C. have access to the resources they need to implement local solutions.”

Conserving Water in Your Home, Garden & Business

[Act] Water Conservation [Environment Lethbridge]

Water Conservation: 10 Ways to Conserve Water in your Home [Canadian Living]

Make Every Drop Count: Water Conservation Tips [David Suzuki Foundation]

Prairie Urban Garden: Xeriscaping [Oldman Watershed Council]

Why Use a Rain Barrel? [Penn State Extension]

Further Information

Canadian Drought Monitor (map is updated regularly) [Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada]

Snow Survey and Water Supply Bulletin – February 1, 2024 [Government of British Columbia]

Understanding Drought [6 short videos, Oldman Watershed Council]

Alberta’s Water Wars [podcast, Calgary Climate Hub]

Book Review: Water Always Wins [EcoFriendly West]

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EcoFriendly West informs and encourages initiatives that support Western Canada’s natural environment through its online publication and the Nature Companion website/app. Like us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter or Mastodon, or subscribe by email.