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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 (AEP) is responsible for forecasting, monitoring, and managing use of water during a drought. In Alberta, water diversions are managed primarily through a system of water licences with a priority based on the date the licence was applied for. AEP also ensures Alberta meets its transboundary water agreements with neighbouring jurisdictions and maintains a healthy aquatic ecosystem.
The Water Act protects water for household and agricultural use. Under a specific set of conditions, no licence is needed for either type of diversion.
Some water licences have conditions related to flow restrictions and those water licence holders are responsible for complying with low flow licence restrictions. During a drought, some water licence holders may have to cease water diversion. Water shortage advisories are reported publicly on:
- Alberta River Basins website
- Alberta Rivers: Data and Advisories application that can be downloaded to your smartphone.
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.
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.
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