Climate change and variable moisture threaten drought, deluge and general disaster

Feature | Gregory Beatty | July 8, 2021

“This desert [forms] a triangle, having for its base the 49th parallel of latitude from longitude 100° to 114° W, with its apex reaching the 52nd parallel, [and] can never be expected to become occupied by settlers.” —John Palliser, 1859 report to the Royal Geographical Society

When British geographer John Palliser surveyed southern Saskatchewan on his historic five-year expedition to assess western Canada’s settlement potential, he found an uninviting mix of short grasses and shrubs, with cacti growing along coulee ridges.

Ultimately, though, his infamous “triangle” was settled by Europeans.* Both Regina and Saskatoon are inside it, in fact.

So what changed? How did barren land bloom?

Well, when it comes to moisture, it turns out Saskatchewan is just naturally variable, says Peter Leavitt.

“Where we are is a triple point in the middle of the continent,” says Leavitt, the Canada Research Chair in Environmental Change and Society at the University of Regina. “We get moisture from the Gulf of Mexico, believe it or not, along with the Pacific Ocean and the Arctic. And the relative importance changes quite a bit from one year or one decade to the next.”

Leavitt says climate reconstructions done by scientists show that the settlement era from 1890 on has been one of Saskatchewan’s wettest periods in the last 2,000 years.

“Even in archival photos you can see the difference,” says Leavitt.

“I live in Qu’Appelle Valley, and if you visit the Lumsden town office, they have pictures from when the town was established in 1905,” he says. “There’s not one twig anywhere. It’s absolutely bald grassland.

“You look at Qu’Appelle Valley now, and you can see woody vegetation,” he adds. “When you only have grasses, that’s a dead certainty you don’t have enough water for trees. It’s not that the bison were coming through and eating everything. It’s just that there wasn’t enough water.”

Settlers got a taste of how dry Saskatchewan could be during the Dirty ’30s. People are getting another taste now, because the last few years have been pretty dry. South of the border, there’s even talk of a megadrought spanning the entire U.S. west.

Global heating is a critical wild card fuelling concern, says Bob Halliday, a Saskatoon water resources engineer who does advocacy for Saskatchewan Environmental Society.

“It’s clear with climate change that we are into a period of greater extremes, so high intensity rainstorms and periods of drought are going to be much more prevalent,” says Halliday. “And we have to understand how an increase in extreme events will affect us down the road.”

Forecast: Dry With Chance Of Flood

Saskatchewan gets its water from three sources: spring snowmelt, seasonal rains, and run-off from the Rocky Mountains that feeds the North and South Saskatchewan Rivers. [see sidebar]

When researchers started studying Saskatchewan lakes, about three-quarters were composed primarily of snowmelt, says Leavitt.

That’s changed.

“Since 1970, Saskatchewan’s snowpack has declined by about a centimetre a year. And in the last few years there’s been a shift, so that most lake water is coming from rain.”

That accords with climate change models for Saskatchewan, which predict generally warmer, shorter winters. As for rain, if it comes down gently over several days so it soaks into the ground, that’s great. But if it comes in torrential downpours, it’s a different story.

Regina just experienced such a storm on June 11. It caused widespread flooding, and the city has since applied for provincial disaster relief.

Design innovations such as drainage ponds to capture run-off from pavement and green roofs on buildings can help cities cope with extreme weather events. But to protect lives and property, major upgrades to sewer and water infrastructure are needed.

Rural Saskatchewan faces problems too, says Leavitt.

“Because the prairies are flat, rain from a deluge doesn’t get trapped in certain areas,” says Leavitt. “It just sheet flows over the land until it hits a channel. You can expect flooding in low-lying areas because of intense storms, and more bank erosion with creeks and rivers.”

Thunderstorms are nothing new in Saskatchewan but before settlement, nature had ways to deal with them. Grasses held soil in place during wet (and dry) spells, minor dips in the landscape served as catch basins for flowing rainwater (and snowmelt), and creek and riverbanks were protected by riparian zones of cattails and other plants.

But as corporate agriculture has expanded in Saskatchewan, those important buffers have been eliminated. Grasslands are dwindling, wetlands are being ploughed up and converted to cropland, and riparian zones are being degraded by livestock operations.

The loss of wetlands is especially critical, says Leavitt.

“Water will run until it reaches a low point, and then sink into the ground,” says Leavitt. “That’s good for crops if it’s a shallow aquifer or subterranean water source. It’s good for farms because many rely on wells for water. It also captures nutrients because wetlands grow aquatic plants which provide habitat for birds, fish, invertebrates and amphibians.”

Thanks to fertilizer run-off from agricultural operations and inadequately treated sewage from growing towns and cities, nutrient levels in Saskatchewan lakes and rivers have skyrocketed in recent decades. When nutrients congregate in lakes, they fuel toxic algae blooms that deplete oxygen and lead to winter die-offs of fish and other aquatic wildlife.

Climate change contributes to the problem. Warmer temperatures mean warmer lakes, which algae thrive in.

The situation is becoming so severe that Regina recently partnered with Ottawa and the province to spend $220 million to retrofit the Buffalo Pound water treatment plant. Before, the plant purified water by letting contaminants “sink out”. But algae are relatively light, so the plant is installing skimming technology to capture them at the surface.

In recent years, both Regina and Saskatoon have upgraded their sewage treatment plants. Leavitt expects that will help improve water quality. But many smaller centres don’t have the financial resources to do that, and instead rely on lagoon systems that are vulnerable to flooding.

“Anything on a lagoon is a potential disaster because every now and then you have a really wet year, and the choice is releasing the lagoon into the local creek or have the waste back up into people’s basements,” says Leavitt. “But that means you’ve taken years of pollution and dumped it into the creek — so it’s like having done nothing.”

Management Needed

To adapt to this new reality, Saskatchewan needs to get serious about water management, says Halliday.

“Saskatchewan has much weaker wetland management policies than Alberta and Manitoba,” he says. “The government is having another go at it now, partly in response to that wet period we had from 2010–2015. They’ve classified the province into different zones, but it’s basically the southeast and east central areas where if you drain wetlands you’re going to cause problems with downstream flooding and water quality.”

The United States, Halliday notes, has a program where farmers are compensated to maintain wetlands and riparian zones. He thinks a similar program should be considered here.

He’d also like to see the province do a comprehensive LiDAR (Light Detection And Ranging) survey of southern Saskatchewan.

“If you had LiDAR coverage you could look at drainage issues much more [closely]. Water does run downhill, but if you don’t know which way the water is going to flow it raises additional challenges.”

The big challenge Saskatchewan faces, says Leavitt, is the need to understand that historically, water has been a precious resource in the province. And we need to value it accordingly.

“We don’t have enough to irrigate our crops, provide cities with good quality water, and supply industrial uses such as solution potash mining,” he says. “Those mines generate $3 billion a year in revenue, but they need good quality water. Fracking has gone through the roof too. We went from about 100 fracked wells in 2010 to over 8,000 now.”

Dialogue on water use and quality is urgently needed to protect Saskatchewan’s future, says Leavitt.

“There is a tendency here to scramble to do things quickly, and not to do them in a forward-looking manner. That’s not a knock on this government, as I don’t think it’s that different from past governments. But I’ve been here for 30 years, and I’ve been in Manitoba and Alberta, and the difference between the jurisdictions is pretty jarring.”

* Unfortunately for everybody already living here, as is increasingly obvious to even the thickest of settler skulls.


Irrigation Irritation

Last summer, the Saskatchewan Party government announced a 10-year, $4 billion plan to expand irrigation at Lake Diefenbaker. Phase 1 will upgrade existing canals built in the 1970s, while phases two and three will involve building new canals. The province intends to seek federal infrastructure funding to help pay for the project.

Lake Diefenbaker was created through the construction of Gardiner Dam on the South Saskatchewan River in the early 1960s. Regina and Moose Jaw draw water from the lake through Buffalo Pound, while the South Saskatchewan flows north through Saskatoon before merging with the North Saskatchewan River to feed the Saskatchewan River Delta that drains into the Lake Winnipeg/Hudson Bay watershed.

With public attention focussed largely on the pandemic, the project has perhaps flown under the radar. But in June, Cumberland House Cree Nation, who live on the delta, announced plans to assert economic sovereignty over the region to conserve it.

The delta is only one of several concerns that have been expressed about the project, says Bob Halliday of the Saskatchewan Environmental Society.   

“The most valuable use of South Saskatchewan River water right now is to run it through turbines to generate renewable power,” he says. “If you divert water for irrigation, you’re taking water away from power generation all the way to Hudson Bay. Then you have to ask, ‘where are we going to get extra power from?’ It will probably come from burning fossil fuels.”

The project’s aim is to double the amount of irrigable land in the province, providing nearby farms with the water they need to switch from dryland crops to higher-value vegetables.

In southern Alberta and Manitoba, irrigation is used to grow crops such as corn, soybeans, sugar beets, potatoes and legumes.

But historically, Saskatchewan farmers have been reluctant to embrace that production model, says Halliday.

“It seems they just end up growing more dryland crops such as grains, oil seeds, pulses and alfalfa. We just don’t see that value-added processing.”

For project supporters, it’s a missed economic opportunity. But in addition to water, higher-value crops also need heat to grow. Southern Alberta and Manitoba both get more “heat units” than Saskatchewan, says Halliday, so they’re more veggie friendly. And with three canola-crushing plants having been announced in recent months to support value-added processing in dryland farming, he questions the wisdom of spending $4 billion to expand irrigation.

“What other things could be done with that money?” he asks. “What if you increased university endowments by $1 billion each and provided scholarships for students, would that lead to a better economic outcome than growing alfalfa? Similarly, it would cost around $2 billion to run a transmission line to Manitoba Hydro. You could get SaskPower off coal for $2 billion.”

Like the Cumberland House Cree, Halliday is also concerned about the Saskatchewan River Delta. Because of climate change, a century-old shift in the course of the South Saskatchewan River, and the cumulative effect of agricultural, industrial and community use downstream, the delta is already stressed.

“The Saskatchewan River Delta is the largest inland freshwater delta in North America, and the net effect is that it’s drying out,” Halliday says.

“Indigenous people there live a fairly traditional lifestyle,” he adds. “They’re not all hunters, trappers and fishers, but a lot are. These days in Canada, if you try to put a project through without talking to Indigenous people, you can dream on. And the SES would like to see a comprehensive environmental assessment.”