Drought Fears Tempered by Optimism as Moisture Arrives in Some Seed Growing Regions

May 01, 2024

As Alberta braces for a potential drought, seed growers are optimistic that farmers won’t be too adversely affected should dry weather plague the province in 2024.

“It doesn’t usually take much to break a drought — a couple of good rains can do wonders. If we do get above-average moisture, things should be fine. But if not, and we end up with average or below-average moisture during the growing season, we’ll have to adjust our irrigation strategies,” says Will Van Roessel, owner of Specialty Seeds in Bow Island, Alta.

Specialty Seeds, which grows a variety of crops for seed including hybrid canola, wheat, hemp, pea, and more, is situated in the St. Mary’s River Irrigation District, which happens to be the largest irrigation district in Canada. It’s quite substantial, covering a little over half a million acres.

“Most people will likely shift water allocation from lower-value crops to higher-value ones. It’s a bit of a juggling act, and crop insurance coverage plays into it, too. I recently had a customer who switched from spring wheat to durum because his insurance coverage for durum was better, and he expected lower production due to reallocating water to potatoes.”

According to Van Roessel, dealing with potential drought is about having a plan and being prepared for different scenarios.

“Nobody’s panicking, but everyone’s ready to adapt if needed. We’ll be keeping a close eye on things and adjusting our plans accordingly as the situation evolves.”

The largest water-sharing agreements in Alberta’s 118-year history are now in place to help respond to the risk of severe drought, the province says.

After several dry years and El Niño producing a warm, dry winter across Canada, Alberta is at risk of severe droughts this year, especially in southern Alberta. Recent snowfall has helped, but the province’s winter snowpack remains below average, many rivers are lower than normal and multiple reservoirs are below capacity.

To help, 38 of the largest and oldest water licensees in southern Alberta have voluntarily agreed to reduce the water they use if severe drought conditions develop this spring or summer. These groups represent up to 90 per cent of the water allocated in the Bow and Oldman basins and 70 per cent in the Red Deer River basin.

“With these agreements, Albertans are once again coming together when times get toughest. They will help make the most of our limited water supplies and make every drop count if a severe drought hits this summer,” said Environment Minister Rebecca Schulz.

According to Greg Stamp, seed sales manager for Stamp Seeds in Enchant, a recent snowstorm is probably the best kick-off he could hope for, especially for the drylands region in the south.

“We recently got hit by a hefty snowstorm that swept through southern Alberta. It was a bit of a relief because things were looking bleak with the dry conditions we’d been experiencing. The snow came about two weeks back and melted nicely, giving us a solid moisture boost,” he says.

But here’s the twist: while he’s feeling a bit more hydrated down at ground level, the mountains are still lagging in snowpack.

“That means our irrigation systems are taking a hit, with some districts having to make significant cutbacks. It’s a juggling act for farmers, with water being diverted to priority crops like potatoes or canola, while others might see changes in what they plant, opting for more water-efficient options like lentil or pea.”

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