Impact of drought, low precipitation concerns policy makers, farmers

Shannon Sereda & Jasen Aussant, Government Relations, Policy & Markets

It has been a winter of extremes, with bone-chilling cold giving way to surprisingly mild days, yet the landscape across the Prairies lacks its usual blanket of snow.

This past winter in Alberta was anything but ordinary, leaving its mark on the province’s agricultural heartland in ways both unforgettable and concerning. As we peer into the imminent arrival of spring, the absence of precipitation, lower than average winter snow pack, and record-low river levels, are casting a shadow of uncertainty over the upcoming growing season. As shown in the map, soil moisture conditions across Alberta continue to trend toward concerning levels, and the hope for imminent spring rains is increasing.

The map shows Alberta is currently at stage 4 (out of 5) in its water shortage management response plan, with at least 51 water shortage advisories in place for select water management areas across Alberta.

Available Soil Moisture as of March 6, 2024

Source: Government of Alberta

Alberta Grains, together with Team Alberta, is diligently monitoring this situation and working hard to ensure wheat and barley farmers’ concerns are well represented to government and other critical partners. We recognize that this summer’s growing season will be quite varied. From dryland to irrigated acres, access to water will be top of mind for producers.

Government of Alberta response
The Government of Alberta (GoA) is aware of the current moisture conditions and has been taking a proactive approach to prepare as best they can to mitigate the impacts of low-water levels. A cross-ministry drought command team, led by Alberta Environment and Protected Areas (EPA), has been authorized to lead discussions with major water license holders to strike water-sharing agreements to mitigate the risk of drought, as reservoirs across the province are well below capacity.

As a part of their preparations, the GoA struck a Drought Advisory Committee1, also led by Alberta Environment and Protected Areas. It will provide advice directly to the Minister of Environment and Protected Areas and their role will be to “act as an independent sounding board to help the government support communities, farmers, ranchers, and businesses share, conserve and manage water during a potential drought.”2

FROM LEFT TO RIGHT: Jasen Aussant (Senior Policy Advisor), Kevin Bender (Alberta Grains Delegate), Dave Bishop (Alberta Grains Director) and Honourable RJ Sigurdson (Minister of Agriculture and Irrigation) in Edmonton.

Of note for producers, Alex Ostrop, chair of the Alberta Irrigation Districts Association and a southern Alberta farmer, is a member of the committee. This group will be useful to amplify stakeholder concerns and needs regarding potential water shortages this summer.

Working from a preliminary draft of their 2024 Drought Emergency Plan, which details how the province will respond as needed through drought conditions, the GoA has contracted WaterSMART to assist in drought modeling to stay ahead of seasonal forecasts and ensure a real-time view of water capacity in the province.

After the experiences of 2000-2001, the GoA learned that leading collaboration for water sharing is a key practice to conserve water. As water is a vital and scarce resource, it is impactful to have major water license holders in the South Saskatchewan River Basin and Red Deer River Basin regions willingly share water so that everyone will have some access. This is a voluntary collaboration, and it is expected to be completed by late March or early April. Although this may mean reduced allocations for irrigators, it will hopefully result in a predictable amount of water for the season.

Beyond the committee and negotiations with water license holders, the GoA is undertaking initiatives to support water access for agriculture, including public awareness campaigns and hosting regular town halls to keep major stakeholders updated. The GoA has been clear that priorities will be given to humans, livestock and food production over recreational and aesthetic water uses.

Looking to the future, GoA announced heavy investments into expansion and enhancing efficiency for irrigation. This includes increasing the size of current reservoirs and constructing new ones. These efforts will total over $1 billion in investment, leading to an expansion of over 200,000 irrigated acres. While these investments won’t be felt this year, they will be welcomed in the future as farmers continue to look for ways to mitigate the impacts of an increased frequency and intensity of drought cycles.

Alberta Grain’s policy efforts

Alberta Grains welcomes these investments into irrigation and recognize that dryland acre farmers also require representation. We will continue to work with farmers to advise the government of concerns we hear across the province.

To this end, Alberta Grains participates with Team Alberta Crops in bi-weekly meetings with high-level officials with Alberta Agricultural and Irrigation and representatives of Agriculture Financial Services Corporation (AFSC) throughout the growing season.

In early March, Alberta Grains, along with other members of Team Alberta Crops(3) traveled to Edmonton to meet with elected officials and government representatives to discuss a number of concerns, including drought concerns, planning and mitigation.

Team Alberta Crops representatives, which included farmer representatives from each of our commissions, were clear that dryland acres require support and that developing new tools to conserve water on-farm will be impactful. We were aligned with officials in stating that water is vital for food production and that the stresses of water scarcity will be felt across Alberta.

Resources for producers

As this summer will be unpredictable, business risk management and education will be a helpful tool to navigate the uncertainty. Jeremy Boychyn, Alberta Grains Director of Agronomy & Extension will continue to provide tools and resources to best navigate farming with low moisture through the Growing Point newsletter.

Crop insurance provides coverage from circumstances outside of producer control and for varied types of operations. AFSC offers different levels of coverage for specific perils. Producers would be well-served in meeting with their local representatives to discuss their unique needs and obtain appropriate coverage.

For more information on drought-related activities and programming please see the following links:

AFSC Information on Crop InsuranceGovernment of Alberta Drought Website

If you have specific concerns, please contact

Shannon Sereda
Director, Government Relations, Policy & Markets

1,2: New Drought Advisory Committee for Alberta
3: Team Alberta Crops