You don’t have to peer very far into the past to see a different landscape in southern Alberta. The area now populated with farms, lush in the heat of the summer, was once mostly parched — drought-prone land with periods of abundance.

First Nations lived with the land for generations, working that abundance and scarcity, following herds of bison which thrived on the resilient grasses of the prairies

But settlers arrived and so did irrigation, wetting fields for crops where once there were prairie grasses adapted to an arid climate; home to rattlesnakes, burrowing owls and pronghorn. 

A grazing reserve in southern Alberta protects untilled mix-grass prairie, as well as wetlands, and is a refuge for many endangered species. Much native prairie in Alberta has been replaced by agriculture, often with the aid of irrigation systems. Photo: Amber Bracken / The Narwhal

That irrigation consumes vast quantities of water to produce crops ranging from sugar beets and potatoes to alfalfa and canola, dependent on water pouring off the Rocky Mountains in the spring and swelling rivers, human-made reservoirs and canals. 

It’s just one component of a water system being tested beyond its limits after years of diminished precipitation sapped the province’s water storage, dried out its groundwater and left the government scrambling. 

The prospect of a severe drought is all but imminent, despite a dump of snow early this spring. The government announced what it calls the largest water sharing agreements in Alberta’s history on April 19, which it said could help manage the crisis.

But the crisis confronting Alberta isn’t limited to this summer and what it might bring. The province is dependent on a resource that can’t keep pace with its industry and population, particularly as the effects of the climate crisis arrive at alarming speed

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Tricia Stadnyk, a professor of engineering and geography at the University of Calgary who studies hydrology, says Canada as a whole has ignored what’s coming.

“Oh, it’s Canada, we have so much water we don’t know what to do with it, we’re never going to have drought that’s so severe people have to move or can’t survive or we can’t grow crops,” she says, mimicking the view that massive, widespread water shortage can’t happen here. 

“It’s just unthinkable for Canadians to think about drought at that scale, but the reality is this is the future of the Canadian Prairies.”

Alberta drought: the province’s most populous region is running dry

Since the start of the year, Albertans have grown familiar with pictures of reservoirs devoid of water, particularly in the southwest corner of the province where several years of dry weather have taken the system to the brink. 

As of April 4, the St. Mary reservoir near Lethbridge was at 22 per cent of its storage level, while the Oldman reservoir near Pincher Creek was at 32 per cent — significantly below average levels for this time of year. There were 51 water shortage advisories across the province as of March 28.

Downstream of those reservoirs, thirsty fields consume up to 1.6 trillion litres of fresh water for crops, while municipalities, First Nations and industry are licensed to drink another 9.8 trillion litres

All of that water comes from the nearby mountains, winding down the slopes from snow, ancient glaciers and the heavy rains that usually fall in the spring. It’s not enough to quench the land and people even in a good year, and the last few have been anything but. 

Alberta drought: citizen science water monitoring rivers streams Alberta training Living Lakes Canada cumulative effects
Alberta is reliant on water that flows from the Rocky Mountains and down across the plains into Saskatchewan. Glaciers, snowpack and rain all feed into the creeks and rivers, including the Tay River pictured here, to quench the thirst of industry, people, plants and animals. Experts say even at the best of times, there’s not enough to go around. Photo: Amber Bracken / The Narwhal

“We actually have greater draws or need for the water than we do the amount of water that comes in naturally to these watersheds,” Stadnyk says.

The South Saskatchewan river basin, which stretches from those rocky peaks and across the great plains towards Saskatchewan has been overallocated and no new water licences have been issued for almost two decades. 

The coming summer is almost certainly going to be too dry for everyone’s needs, even with late winter snow and a rainy spring. While soil moisture could improve, everything else will need more help.

“Our groundwater won’t recover as quickly, our reservoir water — we’re going to hope for a good runoff this year for the reservoirs so that will improve that situation — but we’ve depleted the system so much over the last couple of years that it’s going to take some time to recover,” Trevor Hadwen, an agroclimate specialist who does drought monitoring for Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, says.

‘Deficit after deficit, year after year’: water shortages a long time coming

The river basin stretching across southern Alberta and into Saskatchewan encompasses large centres including Calgary, Red Deer, Lethbridge, Medicine Hat and eventually Saskatoon, and is prone to droughts. Animals and vegetation have learned to survive the boom-and-bust water cycle, but the current situation is the result of long-term drought conditions, and the cycle is shifting. Alberta has seen five droughts of varying severity since 2001 — when a multi-year drought had a big impact on the province.

Alberta drought: A map showing the extent of drought conditions across Canada, including Alberta which has pockets of extreme and exceptional drought.
Drought conditions are prevalent across Western Canada heading into the spring, with pockets of extreme and exceptional drought in southern Alberta. Despite increased precipitation in late spring, the province doesn’t have the water reserves needed to see it through a dry summer. Map: Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada

Hadwen says there were three back-to-back La Nina systems — systems that occur when the surface temperature in large parts of the tropical Pacific Ocean cools significantly. That usually brings more precipitation, instead the province incurred “deficit after deficit, year after year,” Hadwen says.

That also means the natural water insurance Alberta banks on is disappearing, and the human-made backups are insufficient. All of the reservoirs, dugouts and storage built over the past 100 years are designed to see Alberta through two years of drought, Hadwen says — not three years and counting.

Stadnyk says groundwater in some areas in December was at its lowest point on record. So much water would be required for things to improve and the threat of drought to disappear, we’d be too busy dealing with the catastrophic floods to celebrate. 

Off the plains, high up in the mountains, the glaciers are shrinking with less snow and warmer winters, taking with them the minimum trickle into the creeks and rivers they otherwise ensure. Glaciers in the province are melting at “historic” rates.

Rivers that would withstand a drought under more typical scenarios could dry up and also warm without glacial melt. 

All of it will impact not only human health, but ecosystems as well. 

Alberta drought: photo of hands in Prairie grasslands
Native plants in Alberta’s grasslands learned to thrive in the boom-and-bust water cycle of the region, but settlers brought agriculture and irrigation to southern Alberta, consuming vast quantities of water for crops. Native grasses including purple prairie clover, pictured here on the Lomond Grazing Association lease, are increasingly rare. Photo: Amber Bracken / The Narwhal

“This is part of a trend that was expected by the climate modelling world and by the hydrology world for this part of the globe,” Stadnyk says.

“We’ve seen this in California for the last 20 years, and now it’s just gradually getting so severe that it’s making its way farther north. We’re on the northern tip of that.”

Government says it will release an Alberta drought emergency plan

Both Stadnyk and Hadwen warn there will be more instability to come, from longer and more pronounced droughts to more intense rainfall, that will have an impact on industry, individuals and the environment. 

Irrigation is the biggest consumer of water in the province, by far, but there are also 4.8 million people to hydrate, and almost as many cattle. There’s also oil and gas, which consumes billions of litres of water each year and often removes that water permanently from the water cycle. 

The province has announced updates to water-sharing agreements with major users in the hopes those with more than enough water on their licences will share with others. It’s the first step in getting organized if the province declares a water emergency this summer. 

Alberta drought: Inky black liquid meets brown in a tailings pond at a Suncor open pit oilsands mine
Vast quantities of water are used to retrieve bitumen from the oilsands in northern Alberta. Here, a tailings pond flows with wastewater at an open-pit mine operated by Suncor. The ponds have continued to grow as mining expands, trapping the water as a toxic sludge. The province and the federal government are examining how and whether to release treated tailings back into the Athabasca River. Photo: Amber Bracken / The Narwhal

The water sharing agreements announced on April 19 are voluntary measures to be brought in if and when they are deemed necessary to deal with a severe drought. The last time the province worked on water sharing agreements with licence holders was in 2001, but it says the current negotiations are the largest in provincial history. 

They cover four river sub-basins in southern Alberta — the Oldman River, upper tributaries of the Oldman, the Bow River and the Red Deer River — and the government says they involve 38 of the largest users in southern Alberta.

The agreements accounting for 90 per cent of allocated water in the Bow and Oldman basins, and 70 per cent in the Red Deer basin.

Municipalities could be asked to reduce their consumption by 5 to 10 per cent.

“We’ll implement and adjust these agreements as needed throughout the summer,” Rebecca Schulz, the minister of environment and protected areas, said while announcing the agreements.

Alex Ostrop, the chair of the Alberta Irrigation Districts Association who stood alongside Schulz on Friday, said the agreements are important, but more work needs to be done to deal with the climate crisis.

“The wet and dry cycles as well as individual weather events will become more extreme,” he said. “We must continue in adapting to this new reality and we must continue to seek partnerships with respect to how we manage this precious resource.”

Not all Albertans welcomed the news.

Nigel Bankes, a professor emeritus in environmental law at the University of Calgary, took to social media to stress the voluntary nature of the agreements, relying on big water users promising to share their quota in the midst of a drought.

The Alberta NDP called it too little, too late.

“Today is postponing action. We’re in drought right now. Reservoirs are empty right now. These agreements should come into effect right now, not later when it might be too late,” Sarah Elmeligi, the Alberta NDP critic for environment and tourism, said in a statement.

“The drought emergency plan was also supposed to be announced today but it has been delayed,” she added.

Schulz said the emergency plan will be unveiled next week.

The province has also brought together what it calls an Alberta drought advisory committee made up of representatives from the oil and gas industry, irrigation districts, as well as the Blackfoot Confederacy and municipalities. 

The Alberta Energy Regulator has also warned oil and gas companies that their supply could be curtailed or cut altogether if a severe drought hits. 

Cities have already started looking at water-saving measures, including Calgary, which warns restrictions could be in place as early as May unless conditions improve. That could mean bans on watering lawns, filling pools and washing cars or windows. It could even mean bans on using water on construction sites for things like dust control if the drought is severe.

Kennedy Halvorson, a conservation specialist with the Alberta Wilderness Association, says Alberta has put itself in a situation where it is being “reactive rather than being really proactive” in dealing with its water woes. 

Alberta drought: A view of wetlands and fields in south Calgary.
A wetland on the southern edge of Calgary will be surrounded by a new suburban neighbourhood. The city has said water use could be curtailed as early as May in order to address the looming drought. Municipal use is a drop in the bucket compared to irrigation, but Tricia Stadnyk, a hyrology expert at the University of Calgary, says everything from systemic to individual changes will be needed to address Alberta’s water shortfall. Photo: Drew Anderson / The Narwhal.

“I think the water sharing is great. It’s great to have that agreement in place should times ever become so dire that we need to decide where water is going,” she says. 

But, she adds, “the conversation has to be about how we make the landscape more resilient so that we retain the water that we do get.”

Hindsight is valuable, but experts say Alberta needs to look forward — and soon

It’s easy to look to the past and point to mistakes. 

Stadnyk points to the share of freshwater in Alberta and the outsized volume of irrigation in the province as an example: Alberta has about 2.2 per cent of Canada’s freshwater supply, but accounts for around 68 per cent of Canada’s irrigation. “We probably, in hindsight, should have never made this an irrigation-dependent agriculture system,” Stadnyk says.

It’s also easy to suggest, but difficult to build, more dams and reservoirs to hold on to more water. Projects take years and involve huge sums of money, not to mention environmental and social impacts. They also don’t solve the underlying issues of supply and demand. 

“Those complex issues have only gotten more meaningful for us,” Hadwen says, citing impacts on the environment and on Indigenous communities. “So we need to be cautious on how we proceed with those types of projects.”

Vibrant autumnal colours dot the forest on the banks of the Highwood River in Kananaskis, with an older clearcut visible in the distance
Clearcut logging continues in Alberta’s headwaters, including these cuts in Kananaskis Country southwest of Calgary. Critics worry about the impact on water quality and flow as trees are removed and runoff washes into rivers and creeks. Photo: Gavin John / The Narwhal

To prepare for a chaotic climate future and work with the water we have will require systemic change and individual change. 

“There’s so much involved with how you manage the water systems, that it’s not as simple as just building large holes in the ground and storing the water,” Hadwen says. “It’s some pretty big implications on the operation side of things as well.”

Updated regulations to allow more use of greywater, reconsideration of our irrigation systems, consideration of where cattle are concentrated, considering how much water is used for oil and gas and eyeballing smaller day-to-day activities such as watering lawns and washing cars can all have an impact. 

And while Stadnyk has plenty to say about how Alberta has failed to get ahead of a problem it knew was coming, she’s not all doom and gloom. 

The province has some of the best water-modelling systems she’s seen in Canada and there are real success stories when it comes to the reduction in water use from oil and gas. 

“I think there has been a solid investment. We’re not starting from nothing,” she says. “But we have a long way to go in terms of looking at drought.”

Alberta drought solutions exist, but bring with them difficult conversations

Halvorson says one of the barriers in Alberta is a laser focus on the financial bottom line, without addressing the social and financial costs of environmental degradation — from the overarching issue of the climate crisis, to more localized issues including wetland destruction.

A digger clears the land at the Fort Hills oilsands mine
Active mining is already taking place at the Fort Hills oilsands project north of Fort McMurray, Alta., where Suncor will build a wall through the McClelland Lake wetland complex so it can mine under half of it. Photo: Amber Bracken / The Narwhal

If Alberta is serious about drought and water, “we wouldn’t allow our wetlands and peatlands to be developed and destroyed, because those are really important aquatic ecosystems that just hold water on the landscape,” she says. 

Late last year, the province announced a pilot program that would make it easier for oil and gas companies to apply for permission to reclaim wetlands as forests, rather than returning them to a more natural state. 

Earlier in the year, the Alberta Energy Regulator rejected a challenge of its approval of Suncor’s plan to cut a large wetland complex in two in order to expand an existing oilsands mine. 

Closer to the parched fields of southern Alberta, where locals forced the government to temporarily backtrack on plans to bring coal mining back to the eastern slopes, logging continues apace, despite concerns of water runoff and sedimentation in important headwaters. Some coal projects could also move forward despite a moratorium. 

“It costs a lot to be water scarce, it costs a lot to deal with drought, it costs a lot to deal with the agricultural ramifications of drought, it costs a lot to deal with the wildfires that occur because of drought,” Halvorson says. “And it would cost us a lot less to invest in and protect our ecosystems to make them robust against those threats.”

But there are changes taking place. Irrigation districts are building more pipelines to move water instead of open canals where evaporation loss is significant. And there is funding for new natural infrastructure to preserve water. 

Halvorson is disappointed the committee established to help advise the province’s drought response doesn’t have an environment-focused voice. 

But, she adds, the good news is the solutions do exist — from irrigation pipelines to preservation of wetlands and retention of forests. But it will require hard conversations about how we use and share our water.

Updated on April 19, 2024, at 1:09 p.m. MT: This story has been updated to include the April 19 announcement of new water sharing agreements.

Updated on April 22, 2024, at 10:35 a.m. MT: This story has been updated to correct a typo. The chair of the Alberta Irrigation Districts Association is Alex Ostrop, not Alex Ostroff.

Updated on May 1, 2024, at 8:56 a.m. MT: This story has been updated to correct an error. La Nina cools ocean temperatures, it doesn’t warm ocean temperatures as previously stated.

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