Canada: Worst is yet to come for Prairie farmers : LUSENET : Grassroots Information Coordination Center (GICC) : One Thread

Tuesday 14 August 2001

Worst is yet to come for Prairie farmers

Catastrophic droughts are normal for region, scientists warn Philip Lee The Ottawa Citizen

Dorothea Lange's photograph, Migrant Mother, shows the pain endured on the Prairies during the drought of the Great Depression in the 1930s when one in four families was forced to move away.

Catastrophic droughts are a natural, regular feature of the environment of the Canadian Prairies and farmers should be bracing themselves for the next "big one," according to a study done at the University of Regina.

This summer, farmers in Alberta and Saskatchewan are suffering through a severe drought. Some communities have declared states of emergency, and farmers are demanding that the federal government provide a bailout package.

As bad as the situation is now on the Prairies, there is a good chance things will get worse.

According to Peter Leavitt, a professor of biology, and Gemai Chen, a mathematician, today's farmers have it easy, compared to some of the far more severe droughts that have occurred during the past 2,000 years.

For the past 3 1/2 years, the University of Regina professors have used evidence obtained from sediment samples in lake beds, and mathematical models, to reconstruct the history of drought on the Prairies in an effort to better predict what farmers can expect in the future.

Mr. Leavitt and Mr. Chen have concluded that the probability of an economically significant drought, with multibillion-dollar losses, occurring by 2030 is 40 to 45 per cent in Alberta and North Dakota, and 20 to 25 per cent in Manitoba and Saskatchewan.

These "catastrophic droughts" have the potential "to seriously disrupt Canadian economy and society," the report concludes. Furthermore, the persistent droughts have diminished both the quality and the quantity of surface water on the Prairies. The professors warn that farmers should not become dependent on groundwater for irrigation because it could lead to "severe aquifer depletion," which is happening in the United States.

The project began in the mid-1990s, when Mr. Leavitt was

approached by farmers who wanted to know if they should be preparing for "the big one." So he formed a partnership with Mr. Chen to use the historical record as a tool for forecasting droughts. Their goal was to determine what the risk is of a severe drought, as bad as the one in the 1930s, in the next 30 years.

The project has had the support of everyone on the Prairies who is interested in water issues: crop insurance agencies, Environment Canada, Agriculture Canada, the Canadian Wheat Board and Ducks Unlimited.

The evidence of past droughts was found in lake sediments. When it is hot and dry, Prairie lakes become salty and the chemistry and biology of the water changes. Long periods of drought leave a distinctive fossil record in lake sediments.

"By surveying hundreds of lakes we can understand the statistical relationship between the species and the chemistry, and then by analysing the species back through time, we can tell how the chemistry has changed," Mr. Leavitt explains.

"The final step is to compare 100 years of meteorological records, climate records that we took, and compare them to the fossil records to prove they actually record the climate."

The probability of the Prairies experiencing a severe drought in the next 30 years is "very high." Mr. Leavitt says. "It's much higher than we'd expect just based on the historical record."

Their work is of great interest to crop insurance agencies, which are dealing with historical records that are, at best, only 50 years old.

The only benchmark the agencies have is the drought of 1988, which cost farmers in Canada about $1.5 billion, and $50 billion throughout North America. There is no accounting of the cost of the drought in the 1930s, although we do know that 25 per cent of the people living on the Prairies were forced to move.

"It turns out when you look back over the last 1,000 or 2,000 years, that was just a drop in the bucket," Mr. Leavitt says. "It wasn't that dry. In fact, the 1930s are only the fifth mildest drought on record."

Mr. Leavitt says Prairie farmers need to think differently about adapting to droughts, to realize that they are not single-year events. A single drought year is a bad year, as farmers will attest to this year; but the average length of drought during the past 2,000 years is 12 years.

One of the worst periods of drought was immediately before the Prairies were settled by Europeans, from the 1850s until about 1890. The most prolonged period of drought was about 1,500 years ago, from calendar year 0 to 500.

"The entire 500 years was dry," Mr. Leavitt says. "Our thinking needs to be modified to take into account that droughts can be successive years, and in fact that is perhaps the most likely case. The 20th century was one of the wettest on record.

"Agriculture has really got it comparatively good right now. Now that's not to say it can't change. And there's a lot of concern with global warming, so I think we've got to start thinking more about adaptation and less about bailout, or immediate, ad hoc strategies."

Mr. Leavitt says Canada could consider establishing a system of intensive groundwater irrigation to combat severe drought, pumping water from underground aquifers and, in some cases, desalinating it.

Prairie farmers in Canada don't do as much water-intensive farming as farmers in the Great Plains region in the United States, where water-dependent crops are being grown in a desert and the great Ogallala Aquifer is being mined at an unsustainable rate.

The Ogallala Aquifer provides water to farms in West Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Kansas, Colorado and Nebraska. According to author Marq de Villiers, the aquifer is dropping by almost a metre a year.

He says the water of the Ogallala will run out, and that the only answer is conservation and the abandonment of farming in the six states. But he notes that this region has become one of the world's breadbaskets, growing much of the country's grain and half of its beef. He says the depletion of the aquifer "could precipitate a global food crisis."

Establishing a drought-breaking irrigation system in Western Canada would require a huge investment in infrastructure, and might also threaten the aquifers beneath the Canadian Prairies.

"We might have to think about using very intensive aquifer farming and desalination as

a way of breaking severe droughts," Mr. Leavitt says. "It's not proven that it will work, but it's one way of acquiring water.

"Now you're talking about major infrastructure with a billion-dollar price tag or more. It's not entirely clear that the political will would be there. We're just not set up to do it now."

Canadian taxpayers bailed out western farmers after the 1988 drought to the tune of $1 billion. Given that western farmers have already received billions of dollars in taxpayer bailouts, to say the political will may not be there for more subsidies is surely an understatement.

A recent report produced by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada suggests there is potential for the expansion of irrigation on the Prairies, but it will come at a price.

"The amount of expansion that will occur will be dependent on the price that society is willing to pay for it," writes resource analyst Terrie Hoppe. "A substantial amount of public dollars will need to be invested in irrigation infrastructure, development, maintenance and improvements in order to achieve significant growth."

The report concludes that the expansion of intensive irrigation on the Prairies might be hindered by environmental concerns, competing water use and lack of public funds.

"While the public has a tendency to focus on the negative impacts of irrigation, efforts will need to be made to educate the public on the benefits of irrigation, which include: greater productivity on a decreased land base, freeing up marginal land for more sustainable uses; a consistent and quality food supply; wildlife habitat, domestic and recreational benefits through the establishment of reservoirs; and decreased production risk resulting from increasing climate variability trends."

The most recent irrigation debate on the Prairies focuses on the Alberta government's plan to build a dam on the Saskatchewan border that may cost more than $1 billion. The government wants to dam the South Saskatchewan River northeast of Medicine Hat to store water for crop irrigation.

The plan is opposed by environmentalists and water regulators in Saskatchewan, which already has a dam on the river and is experiencing record-low water flows.

Mr. Leavitt's study may influence the character of the support network for farmers on the Prairies. His research has shown that while droughts are a regular feature of Prairie life, they tend to settle in different areas each year. He suggests that a Prairie-wide crop insurance plan would spread the risk around.

"Statistically, any year could be the year of a drought," he says. "They are a natural feature of the Prairies. There is no year in which we are absolutely safe."

-- Martin Thompson (, August 14, 2001

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