Water scarcity looms as `rivers seem to be getting smaller, faster'
CROWSNEST PASS — Where fly fisherman Shane Olson once paddled summer tourists around in a boat, he now guides them by foot — carefully navigating shallow waters one step at a time.
“Every year, these rivers seem to be getting smaller, faster,” Olson, 48, said, whipping a gleaming fishing line over the Crowsnest
River about 72 km from the Canada-u.s. border.
It is an alarming trend in Canada's breadbasket, and a sign of water scarcity to come as climate change speeds the melting of Rocky Mountain glaciers feeding rivers that deliver water to some seven million people across the Prairies. “We are pushing it to the absolute breaking point,” Olson said.
The province of Alberta could face a $22.1 billion loss, or roughly 6 per cent of its gross domestic product, as Saskatchewan River Basin flows drop, according to a study last year in the journal Ecological Economics.
At the same time, water demand is growing, sparking competition among miners, farmers and First Nations.
A seven-hour drive downstream from Olson's fishing spot, Saskatchewan is planning a $4-billion expansion of its irrigation system. Upstream in the Rockies, developers have proposed eight new steelsupplying coal mines.
In an interview, Federal Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson called rising Prairie water demand amid climate change “a major source of concern.”
While Canada is the world's third most water-abundant nation, the Prairies are prone to both flooding and drought. Their water supply depends on how much snow collects in the Rockies and how quickly it runs off as it melts.
But water abundance is a Prairie myth, scientists say.
During the second half of this century, most Canadian Rocky glaciers will melt, according to a 2019 study in Water Resources. The region's water outlook will be “bleak” long before then, said University of Lethbridge geographer Christopher Hopkins.
Warmer temperatures are causing mountain snow and ice to melt earlier in the year, increasing the likelihood of summertime water shortages, according to research published last year in Environmental Reviews.
As the climate changes, winter precipitation falls more frequently as rain than snow, leaving less water stored in the mountains, hydrologist John Pomeroy said.
Water conditions over the last 20 years have been especially volatile, according to tree ring data that record annual water and temperature conditions dating back 900 years, said Dave Sauchyn, director of the University of Regina's Prairie Adaptation Research Collaborative. That period saw both a prolonged drought in 1999-2003 and the 2013 flood that wrought $6 billion in damages.
As of Aug. 30, Alberta had issued 18 low-water advisories for rivers.