Rain improves drought outlook in Edmonton region

A rainy and cool May has made a "tremendous improvement" to drought conditions across the Edmonton region, but experts warn that a dry month could quickly reverse that progress.

"I never want to tell people that the drought is over in terms of, 'Go ahead and waste water,'" Trevor Hadwen, an agroclimate specialist at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, told Taproot. "There's certainly concerns, and we should be proactively saving as much moisture as possible and not think that the drought is completely over at this point because we're still recovering."

Indeed, if the current damp and cool temperatures shift to dry and hot, "we can revert back into a really bad situation quickly," Hadwen said.

Most of the province is experiencing drought conditions. Alberta is at Stage 4 of its response plan for water shortages. Stage 5, the most extreme, would involve declaring an emergency. The driest areas are in south-central and northwestern Alberta.

About 60 millimetres of rain fell in the Edmonton region in May, about double the precipitation received in the same month in both 2022 and 2023. Hadwen said while that has helped crops get a good start, it isn't enough to undo precipitation levels that have been about 150 millimetres below normal over the last three years.

"That (lack of rainfall) will only impact agriculture if we start to see some of those really dry, long, extended periods where the crop is relying on that deeper soil moisture," he said. "It's going to reflect a little bit in terms of pasture production as well, because the pastures haven't fully recovered from the past previous years of drought."

The dry and warm El Niño climate pattern has been affecting weather globally since June 2023. Hadwen said if El Niño continues, agriculture may struggle, as the crops won't be able to rely on reserves of deep-soil moisture.

In 2021, when Edmonton experienced a simultaneous heat wave and lack of precipitation resulting in falling water levels, it enacted water-use restrictions — as did Strathcona County, Spruce Grove, and Stony Plain.

Experts said that while the 2024 drought is making agriculture relatively precarious, they don't expect water restrictions to affect people in the region's cities, but do suggest conservation should be top of mind.

A tractor in a dry-looking field.

May showers helped alleviate drought concerns in the Edmonton region, but a dry June could reverse that progress. (Government of Alberta)

Mary Ellen Shain, a senior planning and project coordinator at the North Saskatchewan Watershed Alliance told Taproot she doesn't foresee major water problems in the Edmonton region, despite a lower-than-average snowpack in 2024. "Right now we're looking at possibly about 82% of what our average is, but because we have low demands on our water system, we're not expecting to have a lot of issues that way," Shain explained. "Everybody is expected to have a sufficient supply of drinking water in this area."

The snowpack is an important water resource that feeds streams and rivers when it melts in the spring. Snowpack conditions in the North Saskatchewan River Basin got slightly worse in May, according to provincial surveys. Four of the seven sites surveyed were below or much below average, with the rest being above average. The province forecasts the North Saskatchewan River to flow at lower-than-average volumes until September. The Sturgeon River, which is fed by the North Saskatchewan River basin, is under a water shortage advisory.

In December, Environment and Protected Areas Minister Rebecca Schulz asked all municipalities in the province to develop water shortage plans in case water availability decreases. When developing the plan, municipalities are required to assess drought risk, develop a wide range of options to address water shortages, and develop criteria that would trigger the plan. Some options to address water shortages include collecting stormwater, placing time restrictions on outdoor water use, and developing water-sharing agreements with water licensees. There is a water-sharing agreement in place in southern Alberta, where 38 water license holders have agreed to voluntarily reduce water usage if drought conditions persist.

South of Edmonton, Devon town council approved a new water-conservation bylaw that introduces three new levels of water restrictions. Beaumont updated its utility bylaw in April to promote water conservation and prohibit wasting potable water. Beaumont's water strategy has three levels of water restrictions, with the city planning to suspend non-essential water use and ban residents from some water use if necessary.

The City of St. Albert told Taproot it is reviewing its water demand management protocols, which are put in place when water demand exceeds supply and water reservoir levels aren't able to recover.

Strathcona County told Taproot it is working on an overall drought management plan that will build on existing water demand policies and is communicating with EPCOR on drought contingency plans. Fort Saskatchewan city council reviewed an interim drought-management plan in mid-May. The plan outlines ways town administration can reduce non-essential water use.

Spruce Grove, Morinville, and Stony Plain did not respond to requests for comment by deadline.

The region got a preview of what water restrictions could look like earlier this year when EPCOR issued a ban on non-essential water use following an equipment failure at the E.L. Smith Water Treatment Plant. EPCOR asked residents to take short showers, turn off the tap while brushing their teeth and shaving, delay laundry, and hand-wash dishes.

Shain said if the North Saskatchewan River's levels remain low and the region doesn't get much precipitation, she recommends residents get in the habit of reducing water usage, especially outdoors.

"One of the things that could happen in the city is that if we are drier than normal here, and we see an increased pressure on people watering their gardens and their lawns, that can put a lot of unnecessary stress on the water infrastructure, even if we have the available water in the North Saskatchewan River," she said.

As outdoor water usage can account for more than 50% of the region's water consumption, harvesting rainwater and using that to water gardens and lawns can help reduce pressure on the region's drinking water, Shain said.

She added the province could possibly suspend fishing on the region's creeks as low rainfall can lead to low water quality levels and increase creek temperatures, which can be hard on plants, fish, and other animals. "It's really important to reduce human pressures during these times and ensure that creeks remain pretty shaded, especially with tree canopy," she said.

Alberta has experienced extreme droughts over the last 25 years. The 2001-2002 drought was one of the most expensive natural disasters in Canadian history, slashing $5.8 billion from Canada's GDP, with the Prairies facing the worst of it. Alberta reported no net farm income in 2002, during the drought. Alberta experienced record droughts again in 2009 and 2021.