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Rainstorm ‘not enough’ to pull Alberta out of drought, expert says

Click to play video: 'Alberta rain welcome reprieve, but not enough to end drought conditions'
Alberta rain welcome reprieve, but not enough to end drought conditions
WATCH: While the rain across much of Alberta is exactly what many farmers have been waiting for, some say it’s still a drop in the bucket compared to what is needed. Sarah Offin reports. – May 7, 2024

The rain event hitting much of Alberta for several days is well timed and well located, but it’s not enough to pull Alberta out of drought, experts say.

“There’s no question it’s very helpful,” said Tricia Stadnyk, an engineering professor and Canada Research Chair in hydrological modelling. “We need this water so desperately and this is exactly what we were hoping for.

“It’s not going to pull us out of drought. That’s been a long time building up. But it’s certainly what we need right now, especially for agriculture producers to make sure that soil is nice and wet when it’s coming into planting season.”

Stadnyk said what’s needed is a sustained, drizzly, stretched out period of many, many months of rain and snowfall.

Click to play video: 'Rain is good, but more still needed to avoid drought in Alberta'
Rain is good, but more still needed to avoid drought in Alberta

“It’s really been a system that’s been emptying for three years or so,” she explained. “It’s been three years of lower-than-normal snowpack. Actually, it’s been almost a decade of lower-than-normal rainfall and snow.

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“You’re not going to fill up a system instantly when you’ve been emptying it for so long.”

According to the government of Alberta, the province is currently in water shortage management Stage 4 (out of 5), which means multiple water management areas are impacted by water shortage. Water conservation efforts are taking place.

Many areas in Alberta are dealing with drought conditions, particularly in the south, according to the province.

As of Tuesday, there were 44 water shortage advisories in place.

Click to play video: 'Alberta’s mountain snowpack still 20% below normal'
Alberta’s mountain snowpack still 20% below normal

Between Monday and Wednesday, a large swatch of Alberta was expected to get a month’s worth of rain in the span of about 48 hours.

Environment Canada issued heavy rainfall warnings, with the hardest-hit areas in southeastern Alberta expecting as much as 70-80 millimetres of rain.

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“What we need is this, these kinds of rainstorms, but more frequently. Ideally, not too heavy of rainfall and ideally, spread out. So, kind of those wet and dreary springs and summers. I’m sorry, but that’s really what’s best for the system at this point.

“And we really need that to be sustained not only this spring and summer but ideally for two years or so.”

Soil moisture reserves are well below normal throughout most of the agricultural areas. Areas of one-in-50-year lows are emerging across parts of the Peace Region and parts of the northeast. The province says that if spring precipitation remains below average in the spring, these areas will likely expand quickly.

“The timing of this precipitation is absolutely critical,” Stadnyk said. “This is the time when agricultural producers are looking to prepare the land for their crops and those initial seeds and seedlings really need water in order to really grow roots and actually take hold. If the soil is bone dry, they simply just can’t do that.”

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It’s not just the timing of this rainstorm that’s helpful, Stadnyk said — the location is good too.

“It was definitely southern and southeastern Alberta that had the driest conditions in the province so it’s really good that we’re getting the moisture where it’s needed the most.”

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Click to play video: 'How Canada’s mild winter is negatively impacting farmlands'
How Canada’s mild winter is negatively impacting farmlands

Alberta Agriculture and Forestry agrometeorologist Ralph Wright said places around Drumheller have seen upwards of 60 mm of rain and it’s not over yet.

“They always say every cloud has a silver lining. I think, for a lot of people, this may be a gold lining in these clouds,” he said. “It’s falling on an awful lot of dry ground, and I think a lot of people are quite happy.

“This is good, and one may even argue over a long meteorological period, this is quite normal to see these sorts of events and they’re quite welcome, particularly when it’s on extremely dry soil. Some of these areas in southern Alberta have been dry for several years.”

Wright said it was a very dry winter and this is the beginning of Alberta’s wet season. It’s not uncommon to have big rainfall events in southern Alberta in late April and into May and June, he said.

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“Generally speaking, in the growing season, an inch of moisture lasts a week at the height of the growing season, so we need to build up reserves in the soil for short duration dry spells.

“It’s always a wait-and-see game but this is absolutely wonderful news,” he said. “If we were to order a rainfall event, this would be a pretty good order. I don’t think we could order anything much better than this.”

Click to play video: 'Rain barrel usage increasing in southern Alberta'
Rain barrel usage increasing in southern Alberta

However, Stadnyk said Albertans should still expect continued water restrictions.

“I think it’s easy for people to think: ‘OK, we’ve now had a month where there’s been some extra snow — maybe a little bit more so than we normally see — and then now followed by some rain. So hey, this is all good and it’s going to take us out of drought and we’re not going to have water restrictions this summer.’ But that’s not, unfortunately, what we should expect,” Stadnyk said.

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“It’s not enough to replenish the reservoirs, the lakes, the rivers and the groundwater. Really, for that, we need a sustained period of moisture. So, the message really has to be: No, we still need to conserve, to make sure that we’re protecting the ecosystem and we’re not putting ourselves in a situation where we have to go to more severe water restrictions.”

Click to play video: 'Alberta Wildfire provides update on current status in the province'
Alberta Wildfire provides update on current status in the province

The dry conditions are also raising the wildfire risk.

According to Alberta’s wildfire status dashboard, there were 39 active wildfires burning on Tuesday, some of which have carried over from last wildfire season.

At the end of April, residents of the Municipal District of Peace No. 135 were forced to leave their homes for several days due to a wildfire in northwestern Alberta. The fire was about 20 kilometres southwest of Peace River and about seven kilometres southeast of Grimshaw, according to Alberta Wildfire.

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On Tuesday, Reeve Robert Willing said the fire spread especially quickly because the ground was so dry.

“This year is probably one of the worst years that I can remember. I’ve been here for 30 years. We had virtually no snow last winter. At my house, less than six inches of snow where we typically get about three feet. We had no spring runoff. It just melted in place and disappeared. We’ve had no rain to speak of,” Willing said.

“April and May are very difficult months for us for moisture,” he explained. “Once the snow’s gone, there’s a real thick dead grass cover in the valley and it’s very hard to get at stuff, so it’s always a little tense time for the fire staff.”

The late April fire appears to be handled, the reeve said.

“There’s certainly no smoke and there’s nobody working on the fire itself. So the fire is out and starting to green up already, all the grass that was burnt.”

Click to play video: 'Northwestern Alberta residents forced to flee due to wildfire'
Northwestern Alberta residents forced to flee due to wildfire

But, he said the rain that much of Alberta is getting this week hasn’t come to the MD of Peace.

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Willing is hoping for rain this month and next but understands it will take multiple large rain events each dropping an inch or more to make any real impact.

“I would think that we need three or four inches of rain to build the moisture levels back up. We’ve had virtually no rain since last summer and even then, it was quite spotty.”

The municipality has announced a complete fire ban. It’s not allowing off-highway vehicles on public land and is recommending people avoid OHV use on private land too.

The lack of moisture isn’t just concerning on the wildfire front; it’s also hard on farmers.

“It’s usually quite dry when they try and seed and I mean there is some inherent moisture underneath so when they seed, they can get that moisture,” Willing said. “They really need the rains later in May and June.

“There’s obviously concern. It’s a multi-year drought and if it continues along this path, it’s going to be difficult for them.

“It’s pretty dire right now just because of the moisture levels in the ground,” he said. “I’m hoping that things get better.”

Click to play video: 'OHV users stop the spread of fire in the Castle Mountain area'
OHV users stop the spread of fire in the Castle Mountain area

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