RDRWA Vice Chair featured in Alberta Venture

Body: 

(via Alberta Venture Magazine - Water Edition)
 

Stephanie Neufeld

Robert Sandford, EPCOR Chair for Water and Climate Security at the United Nations University Institute for Water, Environment and Health, and Stephanie Neufeld, EPCOR’s local watershed specialist, speak to the 2015 drought and what factors to keep an eye on this year.

After a tough year for Alberta’s agriculture industry, farmers are hoping for the best in 2016. Last year, low precipitation at the headwaters through winter and summer caused many counties in the province to declare agricultural disasters.

We caught up with Robert Sandford, EPCOR Chair for Water and Climate Security at the United Nations University Institute for Water, Environment and Health, and Stephanie Neufeld, EPCOR’s local watershed specialist, to learn more about the 2015 drought and what factors to keep an eye on this year.

An Alberta Perspective by Robert Sandford

Q: What happened last year with the drought conditions in Alberta?
Robert Sandford: Although groundwater is a significant source of water for Alberta’s rivers, the mountain snowpack is the biggest and historically most reliable reservoir of stored water in the province. Last year’s drought was caused by two simple factors, a fast melt of the snowpacks that feed Alberta’s rivers, and continued low precipitation into the spring and summer months. Depending on what part of the province you’re in, one of those factors may have been more prevalent. Precipitation in the catchment areas of the Rocky Mountains was normal into the spring of 2015. But because winter temperatures were 4˚C higher than normal, more of that precipitation fell as rain as opposed to snow. Alberta then experienced record-high temperatures from January through to March causing the snowpack to melt a month and a half earlier than normal. As a result, stream flows generated by the melt also peaked a month early. Some areas were saved by rainfall in July and August, but much of the west remained parched and many agricultural areas suffered.

Q: Is there a way to predict issues with water supply in 2016?
RS: Even though reliable water supply is critical to our economy and vital to agriculture, we cannot currently predict spring conditions until they are very nearly upon us. We know from January 2016 measurements that the snowpack in the southern part of the province is fairly close to normal or slightly above normal in most mountain watersheds but below normal in the northern half of Alberta. It is important to note, however, that it is almost impossible to use early season snow data to make projections as to water supply for the coming year because it represents less than half of the average winter snowfall accumulations for the year. The biggest snow months are March and April and conditions then often have a big impact on water supply.

An Edmonton Perspective by Stephanie Neufeld

Q: Many towns and cities imposed water restrictions in response to the drought, but a few did not. Could you tell us why Edmonton did not?
Stephanie Neufeld: Water conservation is always prudent. But in terms of why water restrictions are or are not imposed, you have to look to both water supply and water demand considerations. Currently, those towns in Alberta who issue water restrictions do so likely because their local water treatment plants or storage reservoirs are not able to meet increased seasonal demand – especially when there are low water conditions in the watershed. In Edmonton, we were able to meet increased demand due to a major plant upgrade in 2008 as well as an overall higher water storage capacity in our reservoirs.

Water allocations in the various basins around the province can also have an impact on restrictions. Water allocations are given out as licenses to municipalities and industry to use water from any given source. The North Saskatchewan River Basin is only 26% allocated and just 3% of that allocation is intended for “consumptive” use – allocation that will not return to the river. In comparison, the Bow River is considered over-allocated. It means that if all licence holders took their full allocation there would not be enough water.

Q: Based on the levels from last year, are any of Alberta’s watersheds at risk for low-flow years?
SN: Long droughts remain a concern for all basins, and recent studies suggest that droughts upwards of 30 years are not uncommon. In fact, Alberta was actually settled in one of the wettest time periods in history. This has changed our perspective on considering our supply to be static and we’re now in the process of investigating some of the effects of supply, including being better able to determine the probability of a drought over the next ten or twenty years. We’re in a constant flux of research – we learn and then adapt.

Menu IconMain menuContent IconContent