Part of Drought

Drought 101

Information about a drought, the effects of drought and water management stages.

Drought basics

Dry cracked mud flat in the Alberta Rockies, evergreen trees and mountains in the distance

Generally, Alberta relies on melting snow and precipitation for most of its water. Droughts are prolonged periods of dry weather that deplete water resources, including:

  • natural sources (rivers, streams, lakes, wetlands, groundwater)
  • constructed storage (reservoirs and dugouts)
  • irrigation canals
  • soil moisture

Types of drought

Drought can further be defined based on its impacts, including:

  • Meteorological drought

    Meteorological drought is a result of less precipitation than normal over a prolonged period in a specific region. This is usually the first type of drought to occur and is based on water shortage conditions and not impacts of drought, which typically appear later.

  • Agricultural drought

    Agricultural drought occurs when there is not enough soil moisture to meet the needs of crops and pastures during the growing season. It usually occurs next after a meteorological drought. 

  • Hydrological drought

    Hydrological drought occurs when surface water or groundwater levels fall to below-average levels because of a lack of precipitation. It usually occurs more slowly than a meteorological or agricultural drought.

  • Socio-economic drought

    Socio-economic drought occurs when the prolonged water shortage in a region begins to impact people and the economy. In the past 120 years, 5 major droughts have occurred across the Canadian Prairies. Starting in 1929 with the “Dust Bowl”, multi-year droughts also occurred in the 1980s and the early 2000s.

Impacts of drought

Many Albertans believe this province has an abundant supply of freshwater, but in some areas, such as southern Alberta, water scarcity is already a reality. Impacts from drought include:

Dry, cracked soil and withered plants in drought-stricken arm field
  • degradation or death of vegetation, fish and wildlife
  • economic losses in agriculture and associated industries
  • water restrictions, shut down of some licensed water diversions where water demands exceed water supply
  • increased forest fire risk

Multi-year droughts are critical to understand and prepare for because their impacts on the environment, economy and society are cumulative. Because we do not know in advance whether a drought will become a multi-year event, the potential for prolonged droughts requires greater preparedness and resiliency.

To learn more about how the Government manages drought, visit the “What Government is doing page.

Water management

Alberta’s government ensures the quality and quantity of Alberta’s water resources under the Water Act, which supports and promotes the conservation and management of water. During times of drought or water shortage, the government will work with license holders to help find solutions. 

Depending on the length and severity of a water shortage, the government may proceed through these 5 stages of water shortage:

  • Stage 1 - Monitoring and observation

    As the water supply outlook indicates there may be potential water shortages and there is elevated risk to priority calls, apportionment agreements and the aquatic environment.

  • Stage 2 - Active management

    Stream flows are below instream objective or water conservation objectives and is forecast not to improve, with stressful conditions for fish populations.

  • Stage 3 - Priority Call assessment and administration

    Receipt of a Priority Call or Apportionment Administration.

  • Stage 4 - Multiple Water Management Areas affected

    A significant number of licensees/traditional agricultural users / household users in multiple water management areas are impacted and unable to divert water, with water shortages projected to persist.

  • Stage 5 - Declaring an emergency under the Water Act

    Significant risk to human health and safety due to insufficient water supply and water quality degradation. Municipalities, water users and Alberta Government departments have been unable to address the extent and magnitude of water shortage. Significant stress on the health of the aquatic environment where fish mortality occurs.


Connect with Environment and Protected Areas’ Outreach Services:

Hours: 8:15 am to 4:30 pm (open Monday to Friday, closed statutory holidays)
Toll free: 310-3773 (in Alberta)
Email: [email protected]