Droughts: the new normal for the Northeast?

Officials, farmers worried about our water future

The man in charge of Dawson Creek's water supply says drought conditions are becoming distressingly common.

"It seems like it's a broken record," said Director of Infrastructure and Sustainable Development Kevin Henderson, of consistent drought conditions towards the end of summer. "It's been a fairly constant thing over the past five or six years."

On Friday, the B.C. Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resources declared level three drought conditions for the entire Northeast.

That's one step below the province's most severe drought advisory. Should the province upgrade to level four conditions, it could suspend short term water permits.

For now, the ministry has asked Dawson Creek to reduce its total water consumption by 20 per cent. Residents are also being asked to limit their watering of plants and lawns and avoid unnecessary water use.

According to Henderson, Dawson Creek will voluntarily reduce its consumption of water from the Kiskatinaw river to 9,000 cubic meters a day.

"When [the Kiskatinaw] gets down to a certain level, we have to reduce our withdrawals," said Henderson. "We're at that point." According to the ministry, the flow of water in the Kiskatinaw is around 39 per cent of average.

For now, the water reductions shouldn't be a problem, as Dawson Creek typically consumes between 6,500 and 8,000 cubic meters daily. The city also has significant quantities of water stored.

As for precipitation, Environment Canada data indicates that precipitation in the Fort St. John area has been "one-half of normal over the past few months."

The drought has stunted this year's canola harvest, one of the largest agricultural products in the region. The yellow crop accounts for around 98,000 of the 280,000 acres under cultivation in the B.C. Peace.

Irmi Critcher, a member of the board of the Grain Growers of Canada, said farmers will likely harvest early to prevent further heat damage to the crop.

"Our crops were off to a good start, but the prolonged temperatures sucked the moisture out," said Critcher, who runs a farm near Taylor. "A lot of the potential of the crop early on is lost now. It definitely won't be a bumper crop, and if this goes on it could be a below average crop."

Henderson worries dry summers are now the norm for the Peace.

"I think things are changing, there's no doubt about it," he said "The trend is towards more years like we're seeing now, instead of wetter years."

He added that the rainfall last week was a short downpour, as opposed to the day or two a week of wet conditions the region really needs.

Farmers might have to seriously consider new irrigation methods, said Critcher. Right now, the crop is too large and the water supplies too spread out to justify large-scale irrigation.

"Irrigation would be a huge investment, and you have to be guaranteed a water supply," she said. "Right now, it's not a feasible solution, but it's something we may have to look at in the future."

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