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It’s getting dry — is it time to worry?

No, says weather expert, but areas across the province are on Bruce Burnett’s watch list

soil moisture map of Alberta
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With warm-weather records dropping like flies and bare fields drying out in parts of the province, is there trouble ahead?

Don’t worry yet, says Bruce Burnett, weather and crops specialist at the CWB.

“I don’t think that this early-spring weather means that we are necessarily headed for a drought,” Burnett said in a March 20 interview.

“I’m not going to jump out and say that 2015 is going to be a drought year because it’s a little bit early yet to establish what the dominant spring pattern is going to be in the Prairies. Just because we’re dry here in March, doesn’t mean that we’re going to see shortfalls in April and May as well, which certainly would raise alarm bells.”

While not having adequate moisture for germination is a worry, Burnett is looking deeper.

“Subsoil deficits are more concerning because they could really impact the yields if we go through a hot, dry period in the summertime,” he said. “Most of our summers do have one to three weeks of hot, dry weather that can cause stress to the crops.”

In southern Alberta, there’s “pretty good soil moisture going into spring,” said Ralph Wright, manager of Alberta Agriculture’s agro-meteorology division.

“It looks like south of Red Deer, most places are well above average for soil moisture for this time of year,” he said. The situation changes north of Edmonton, where soil moisture levels are below average.

“But generally speaking, we’re under above-average snow packs in those areas, so we don’t really know what soil moisture is going to be like.”

Peace Country is the biggest worry. It’s been dry for several years running and, once again, Mother Nature disappointed this winter.

“We didn’t see the type of snowfall that you would normally see in that area,” said Burnett. “When you get into a persistent pattern of dryness, it is a cause for concern.”

East-central and northeastern Alberta are also a concern, he said, with low subsoil moisture levels after being dry most of last year. Fortunately, there was a heavier-than-average snowfall along the Alberta/Saskatchewan border, which should offer a bit of relief.

At this point, though, it’s too soon to tell if the soil moisture levels will be a blessing — or a curse.

“Good soil moisture this time of year may be a bad thing if there’s a really, really wet spring,” said Wright. “Moisture is like a bank account. If you’ve got lots of moisture, it’s generally a good thing because you’re able to store it in the soil.

“But it could be a mixed blessing. The story hasn’t been written yet.”

Hotter than L.A.

Drought is no stranger in southern Alberta, and the area has seen lots of double-digit days in the last two months, including a couple in January where Lethbridge was as warm as Los Angeles. The unseasonable shirt-sleeve weather has dried out topsoil.

“These areas have dried out more quickly because they’ve had above-normal temperatures and not very much snowfall this winter,” said Burnett. “Those areas are also vulnerable to dryness, especially in the spring.”

While it’s too early to sound the drought alarm, producers in much of the province are going to need timely rains.

“When we get into that seeding window, we’re going to need to see a pickup in moisture here to get the crops germinated and the ground in good shape in those southern growing areas,” said Burnett.

The dryness is linked to the weak El Niño in the Pacific.

“The influence of this weather pattern is generally in the winter months and it starts to wane in February and March in terms of influencing the weather pattern,” he said. “So again, we’re probably going to see a change coming up and we’ll see how it settles. If it settles into a dry pattern, obviously we’re going to be concerned about drought.”

The warmer-than-average winter and lack of snow will likely tempt many out into their fields early — a sharp contrast to the delays in seeding experienced in the last couple of years because of wet conditions.

“I think farmers generally welcome this earlier start to spring, but certainly we’re going to need some rain in those areas that I outlined in order to get the crops off to a good start,” Burnett said.

But producers across the province will be playing a “wait-and-see game” for a little while yet, said Wright.

“We’re only at the tail end of March, and March marks the end of the dry season throughout most of the province,” he said. “We’ve still got April and May to go before we see how things are shaping up, and even then, we can only guess what’s going to happen in June and July.”

About the author

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Reporter

Alexis Kienlen lives in Edmonton and has been writing for Alberta Farmer since 2008. Originally from Saskatoon, Alexis is also the author of two collections of poetry, a biography, and a novel called "Mad Cow."

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