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Alberta Innovates hosts panel on drought management in Alberta

Posted on May 31, 2024 by Ryan Dahlman

By Erika Mathieu
Southern Alberta Newspapers

Alberta Innovates recently participated in a public panel to discuss concerns and potential solutions with respect to Alberta’s multi-year drought. 

The conversation centred on how research technology and best practices will help manage present and future drought across the province. 

Panelists in attendance were Mark Summers, associate vice president of Agriculture and Environment for Alberta Innovates, team lead of environmental strategy and climate and environment at the City of Calgary, Pamela Duncan, and executive director of the Alberta Irrigation District Association, Margo Jarvis Redelback.

The panelists offered insight and solutions during the digital presentation centred on drought management in Alberta. 

On the history of drought in Alberta, Summers said, “for anyone listening in that has been living anywhere in Alberta this winter, it’s been pretty obvious that we haven’t had much snow at all. In fact, the snow fall from the last couple of days is quite welcome across the province.”

Despite a relatively mild winter, Summers added, “it is a tell-tale sign that we are entering into, and frankly now in the midst of, a pretty severe drought and there is, rightfully so, widespread concern about the risks and impact of water shortages on our quality of life as Albertans, our health, our environment, and even our economy.” 

Summers works on climate-related issues and said, “in Alberta, and globally, the impacts of climate change will largely be felt through water in terms of where we get water, when we get water, and how much water we get.”

In the southern part of the province, Summers said, “the Bow River, the Oldman River, the Red Deer River, which service extensive agriculture operations and significant industrial operations and large municipalities, these are likely to be the most acutely impacted.” 

With respect to some of the high level issues the province is facing with multi-year drought conditions, Summers said,  “we are going to face challenges with water supply for irrigation and farming in general. We are going to face challenges with water supply for industrial operations.” Other demands placed on water supply by manufacturing and energy sectors, business, and municipal needs will undoubtedly have an impact.

 “This will affect energy security, food security, and of course water security,” noting municipalities are facing challenges keeping municipal water reservoirs at safe levels.

“If I were to sum it up, in terms of the biggest issue, I would say that in the face of constrained water supplies, the biggest issue is ensuring that water goes to the most critical water needs that we have in the province.” 

Summers added the priority for Alberta Innovates is to ensure research, technology and tools are readily available across the province to ensure resilient water systems and processes as drought conditions persist.

Alberta’s drought continues to raise concerns for farmers in southern Alberta, and province-wide. 

Margo Jarvis Redelback, Executive Director of the Alberta Irrigation District Association said 

“speaking directly more to irrigated agriculture, the sector that I represent, of course we are facing a potentially extreme situation. A situation that we probably haven’t been in for 20 years or more.” 

Redelback said water supply and a potential water supply shortage is a top concern for the irrigated agriculture sector as well and that irrigation districts have large senior water licenses, meaning these licensees have the right to divert a some or all of its allocation before junior licensees may access that water. 

“They they potentially could call a priority to on their senior licenses now under the Irrigation Districts Act. It’s important to understand that irrigation districts have a responsibility to their irrigators, but also a responsibility to maintain the economic viability of the district.”

“What it really boils down to is, in extreme drought, how can irrigation districts really be leaders in the basin to encourage best conservation through all sectors to ensure that there is least impact to all.” 

Ongoing research initiatives include a variety of water adaptation strategies across Southern Alberta, and is being scaled down to the City of Calgary as well. These strategies include collecting data on how water moves throughout watersheds, as well as data on snow and rainfall in the basins, storage reservoirs, withdrawals and returns from major users, and more. 

eam lead of Environmental Strategy and Climate and Environment at the City of Calgary, Pamela Duncan, said the city of Calgary has adopted this “innovative approach,” and added, “it’s really interesting to see that we now have baseline data where we can bring together climate change, future population, growth scenarios, and regulatory points of view to be able to ask ‘what if’ questions for the future. Particularly under future climate states because we know that (in) Calgary and southern Alberta, we’re experiencing now and into the future, periods of drought and water shortages and how that will impact our city.”

According to Redelback, digital modelling is among the most impactful strategy being utilizes from a research and innovation perspective to mitigate the impact of drought on the agriculture industry. 

“In the South Saskatchewan River Basin, it really is investment by water stakeholders into the development of the South Saskatchewan River operational model,” which allows for investigation of potential water management decisions based on potential climate change scenarios, and historic and future flows.

Although experts are anticipating another dry season due in part to, “lower than average snow packs,” Redelback added, “there is still is several weeks of time left to put some snow-pack on”, but said a water supply shortage is, “concerning.”

Following the SMRID’s Annual General Meeting (AGM) the district announced that irrigators would be allocated just 8 inches per acre for the 2024 water season; down from 14 inches per acre in 2023.

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