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Lack of moisture worrisome for dryland crop farmers

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Although much of the province is facing a record-low snowpack, Alberta farmers need not be too worried just yet, says a precipitation expert.

“Winter’s not over,” said Ralph Wright, a soil moisture specialist with Alberta Agriculture. “We’ve still got February and March, and this could still turn around.”

That said, it is dry out there. In some places, the snowpack is at its lowest level since Alberta weather scientists started keeping records in 1961.

The problem isn’t just low precipitation but also uncommonly warm weather from October and mid-January.

“Had it been colder, it would have looked a little better,” said Wright. “But that said, in the 90 days (before Jan. 15) measurement, we’ve seen precipitation ranging from at least one-in-six- to one-in-12-year-lows, with several areas in east-central Alberta and across parts of southern Alberta that haven’t seen precipitation this low in 51 years.”

The good news is that the 100 to 120 millimetres of precipitation that usually fall between October and March in these areas only accounts for 25 per cent of the average annual total.

“We’re certainly down quite a bit relative to normal,” said Wright. “But, it doesn’t take much to make that up. February is historically very dry, so don’t expect much for the coming month. But April to July, those are the months that will tell us everything.”

To date, irrigated land looks in a better position. Snowpack across the Rockies is fairly average, said Kent Bullock, district manager for the Taber Irrigation District.

“We’re anticipating we should have fairly normal river flows for the next irrigation season,” he said. “Two of the (snow) pillows (our key rivers draw from) are a little below average and one is above average to date. Looking forward, we don’t have concerns about water availability. We went into winter with our reservoirs not quite at the maximum we like for winter levels, but very close to it. So we are in good shape for reservoir storage.”

Sudden swings

Farming veterans know swings in weather are commonplace in this province.

“We’ve seen situations in the past where it’s been very, very dry at certain times of the year, and the next week rolls around and it’s very, very wet — too wet,” said Bullock.

In fact, the last two years have had massive precipitation shifts. In mid-June last year, extremely dry conditions threatened huge swaths of agricultural land across much of northern Alberta, with soil moisture reserves hovering at one-in-25-year lows. However, the skies opened up in the second half of the month and by the end of June, most of the northern areas had near-normal soil moisture levels, and some were overly wet.

A similar story occurred in 2010, especially the south and central country. At mid-April, at least 40 per cent of Alberta had one-in-25-year or lower soil moisture reserves. Three months later, places like Red Deer were at a one-in-25-year high.

If it seems we’ve had an awful lot of extreme weather conditions in recently, you’re right. In 2010, western parts of the province were the driest they’d been in 51 years. In 2009, it was the central regions that suffered extreme drought; in 2002, the east-central regions; in 2001, southern Alberta; and in 1998, north-central regions.

“It does seem that we’ve seen more of these extreme dry areas developing in the last 10 or 12 years,” said Wright. “Most areas of Alberta have seen the driest conditions of the 51-year period in the last 14 years. If you go back before that, the next one-in-50-year dry period was 1981 in the Peace Country.”

However, don’t jump to conclusions too quickly about changing weather patterns, cautions Wright.

“We’re only going back 51 years,” he said. “That’s not much of a sample. If I could go back 200 years, I’d probably find other decades of dry. The pattern is that there is no pattern. It’s not uncommon to see wet years followed by dry years. And, today’s weather is not a good predictor of tomorrow’s weather in my experience. It could turn around next week.

“At this point, it’s anyone’s guess. There’s a wonderful statement a colleague once said: ‘No one ever lost a crop in the winter.’”

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