Table of contents

What is Drought?

Drought is a prolonged period of dry weather that depletes water resources, including:

  • Natural sources (rivers, streams, lakes, wetlands, groundwater)
  • Man-made storage (reservoirs and dugouts)
  • Soil moisture

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

  • 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.
  • Agriculture 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 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 occurs when the prolonged water shortage in a region begins to impact people and the economy.

In the past 120 years, five major droughts have occurred across the Canadian Prairies. Starting in 1929 with the “Dust Bowl”, multi-year droughts also occurred in the 1980’s and the early 2000’s. Drought conditions are also being experienced in 2021.

Impacts of Drought

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

  • 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.

Water Management During Drought

Alberta Environment and Parks ensures the quality and quantity of Alberta’s water resources under the Water Act. The Water Act outlines a water priority system that can be used during water shortage events to protect the aquatic environment and integrity of the water management system.

A water shortage could be defined as having insufficient water flows to meet the needs of water license holders, household users, or major water users.

Water Act licences

Other than a few specific exceptions, diverting and using surface or groundwater in Alberta requires a licence under the Water Act. The licence identifies the water source, location of the diversion site, volume, rate and timing of water to be diverted, priority of the licence (“priority right”) and any conditions the diversion must adhere to.

In all areas of Alberta, a water conservation objective and instream objective are diversion restrictions that may affect your ability to divert water, particularly in low flow situations. These restrictions ensure a minimum amount of water flow is available to maintain fish habitat and a healthy aquatic ecosystem. During periods of water shortage, if flows drop below those water conservation objectives, licensees will have to stop or delay withdrawals until conditions improve.

Water licence holders are strongly encouraged to review the terms and conditions of their licence.

Managing during water shortages

During a water shortage, it is necessary for Alberta Environment and Parks (the department) to administer priorities for water licences and registrations. These actions protect the aquatic environment and integrity of the water management system. During a water shortage, there are multiple options within the Water Act to allow users to share water via an assignment agreement or transfer, which is either:

  • Seniority-based (priority given in order by senior licence)
  • Sharing-based (distributing existing licensed allocations between licensees through assignment agreements)
  • Transfer (temporarily or permanently transferring an allocation to another licensee or new water user)
  • Combination of the seniority, sharing and transfer

Water allocation decisions are based on, but not limited to, historical available water supply, river system modelling and current environmental flow needs.

Seniority (Priority) Calls

A priority call is usually made during a water shortage event, when there is not enough water to meet all of the licensee needs in a particular basin. For example, a licensee with a more senior (older) licence has the right to divert some or all of its allocation, subject to its licence terms and conditions, before a more junior licensee has access to that water. This is referred to as being first in time, first in right.

In order to administer a priority call, the department will issue a water management order to junior licence holders. Water management orders are enforceable under Section 97 (1)(a) of the Water Act. Restrictions apply until the senior licence holder’s needs have been met and the order has been lifted by the department.

Stay Informed on Conditions

Water shortage advisories are reported publicly on:

Municipal Involvement

Municipalities also play a large role in water management during drought as they are responsible for water supply and distribution to communities. They develop community-wide water shortage response plans, which may include voluntary or mandatory water restrictions. Municipalities also declare agricultural disasters when crops are impacted by drought.

Water Conservation

All Albertans should strive to conserve water, especially during a drought. Water conservation in the home can include activities such as reducing water use on lawns and gardens, fixing leaky faucets, and switching to water efficient plumbing figures and appliances.


Was this page helpful?

All fields are required unless otherwise indicated.

Your submissions are monitored by our web team and are used to help improve the experience on