Beyond a Shadow of a Drought...

by Nata de Leeuw, Outreach Assistant

We may have gotten a bit of rain recently, but so far our Southern Alberta summer has been dry, dry, dry! Anyone walking in the coulees has noticed the crunch of dry grass under their feet, and anyone in the backcountry has felt the heat and seen the dust. And we’ll need a lot more than a few millimeters of rain before things are going to change!

            It’s dry out there! Photo from our weed pull at the end of July along highway 22.

            It’s dry out there! Photo from our weed pull at the end of July along highway 22.

What does this mean for us and our watershed?

Much of Southern Alberta is considered semi-arid, meaning that we get only slightly more precipitation than a desert. When experiencing a period of drought, we are at risk of water shortages, negative ecological and economic impacts, and forest fires. We all need enough water to drink, and we sure don’t want our forests to burn down and threaten local communities!

Everyone in the watershed has a role they can play to help ensure that there is enough water for all, and to keep our forests and homes safe from fire!

For more in-depth information on drought in Canada, have a look at Agriculture Canada’s drought watch website.

Drought is not new to Southern Alberta - The Alberta Water Portal has a history of drought website with a cool visual, and the OWC historical timeline presents a long-term history of the area, which includes several dry periods. It's how we respond in times of hardship, be it drought, flood, or other events, that portray who we are as Albertans: we rally together and take necessary precautions to protect our communities and wilderness.

The Oldman river is well below its average streamflows for this time of year. The purple lines represent upper and lower averages, and the blue line represents current flow. Right now we’re well below average! The bottom red line shows steadily decreasing flows.

The Oldman river is well below its average streamflows for this time of year. The purple lines represent upper and lower averages, and the blue line represents current flow. Right now we’re well below average! The bottom red line shows steadily decreasing flows.

What's with the bans?

Right now, much of the Oldman Watershed is under a fire ban, and a temporary OHV ban was recently announced. With such hot and dry conditions, a fire started by an unknowing visitor, or an errant spark or a buildup of grass or weeds near the hot engine of a quad or dirt bike, could have catastrophic consequences.

What many people don’t realize is that a major motivator for the fire ban is not just the hot and dry conditions, but the fact that many of our resources are helping out in BC and other parts of Alberta right now. The Alberta government has firefighters on standby and ready to go (the base at the Gap sure seemed busy when we drove by), but if we did have a major fire here we would have to take our firefighters back from those places where fires are already burning, putting a strain on resources.

These past few weekends, we were happy to see random campers respecting the ban and recreating responsibly, but we did still see many fires burning in the campgrounds.

Remember - a fire ban means no fires at all!

Not only do you risk burning down our forests, you risk a hefty fine if you are caught with open flame!

What about the fish?

Some river basins in Alberta are currently under a low river flow advisory. Anglers are being asked to restrict their activities to mornings and to minimize handling of fish. The poor fish are already stressed due to low water levels and high temperatures, so anything we can do to help them out increases their chance of survival.

Last weekend we talked to quite a few anglers during our outreach activities, and we were happy to hear that they were all respecting the advisory, and were aware of potential consequences of their actions.

              Low water levels at the confluence of the Livingstone and the Oldman. Poor fish!

              Low water levels at the confluence of the Livingstone and the Oldman. Poor fish!

What about us?

Limit Water Usage Notices happen regularly in Lethbridge, with the most recent one being this past March. We’re not under one right now, but it could happen! In the meantime, here are some actions you can take to help, and here is a link to the City of Lethbridge’s water rationing protocols, in case it does happen.

For those that spend time in the backcountry, make sure you’re keeping up to date on albertafirebans.ca. For information on fishing, check out albertafishingguide.com. Further information on forestry restrictions including OHV use can be found on wildfire.alberta.ca.

The Oldman Watershed Council encourages responsible use of our land and water, and we hope that everyone will continue to follow regulations in the coming weeks.

Not only would a forest fire negatively affect our water quality, it could threaten the homes, businesses, communities, and livelihoods of people who live in our mountain communities. No one wants to be responsible for that!

If you do see anything burning, call 310-FIRE immediately.

Click here for an Alberta Wildlife pamphlet on OHV wildfire prevention tips.

                       These young folks have got it right!                   "For the love of dirt biking, camping and fishing                 we will stay on the trail, put fires out and clean up."

                       These young folks have got it right!
                  "For the love of dirt biking, camping and fishing
                we will stay on the trail, put fires out and clean up."