As a keystone species in North America, the beaver is so much more than just a hat with legs.
It is indisputably one of the most important and influential species, responsible not only for biodiverse ecosystems, but also for drought prevention.
Takota Coen, a fourth-generation farmer, educator, and carpenter, has been channelling his inner beaver since he was a child.
“Every spring, all I did was throw sticks in creeks and try to build dams with weeds and mud,” the 25-year-old says. “Children have an innate sense of trying to slow water down.”
And all that play has made him a pro.
In the spring of 2014, Coen harvested enough water to meet their farm’s water needs for 40 years — 10 million gallons — in just 10 days.
A couple years earlier, when Coen decided to move to his parent’s farm, Grass Roots Family Farm near Ferintosh, Alta., the farm had a water problem: they’d already had two wells dry up on the property, a third that was dry right from the beginning, and a fourth that only pumped two gallons per minute.
“We had no choice but to look for water elsewhere,” he says.
Using LIDAR (light detection and ranging) maps of the property, Coen found the longest and highest valley on the farm, rented a Caterpillar D3 for a day and dug a 1.5 kilometre long, 1.2 metre wide, 0.3 metre swale — which he calls a “wetland on contour.”
That swale enabled Coen to catch all that runoff, and eventually, more.
“The swale will help establish trees, which will slow the wind down, stop the scouring of snow, and hopefully, stop the frost driving into the ground, so we can start healing our water cycle,” he says.
Since then, Coen and his parents have built another kilometre and half’s worth of swales, and they’ve installed a solar pump in their dugout to pump water 110 feet up to a 30,000-gallon earth tank that then uses gravity to feed all of their water systems on the farm during the summer.
“We were incredibly fragile,” Coen says. “If the power went off, our cows would be dead within a few days. Now, if the power goes off, we still have gravity water. If that fails, we have a million-gallon dugout we can fence them into.”
Grass Roots has improved its water cycle, and now, water is no longer the weak link; drought is no longer the main concern.
But for most prairie farmers heading into the 2018 season, 2017’s drought remains painfully raw.
It’s in abundance, in spring flooding, that we as farmers need to start preparing for scarcity — before the wells run dry, before the dugout drains, and before the topsoil blows away with the prairie’s ever-persistent wind.
“We have seen the future, and it’s thirsty” says Jim Warren, a professor of sociology at the University of Regina and an expert in water governance and management. “The droughts of this past century are a virtual walk in the park compared to the droughts we’ve faced in previous centuries.”
Warren’s research has shown the potential for decades-long drought on the Prairies.
“It’d be valuable for people on the Prairies, and on the drier parts of the Prairies, to get involved in some real serious, long-term planning,” Warren says. “We think about it when we’re in it. We rarely think about it when we’re out of it.”
While ag innovations like minimum tillage and stockpiling grass have drastically improved our ability to trap snow, and therefore improve drought resilience, there are many other low-risk, low-cost, and high long-term benefit ways we can harvest water.
One example are cold holes, which Warren says are very narrow, at least 30-feet deep, dugouts with minimal evaporation installed along intermittent streams and a low-cost, low-risk, moderate benefit solution he borrowed from a mixed farmer near Hanna, Alta.
“Some people say, ‘go the route of the mega-projects, build additional big dams and expand irrigation,’ ” he says. “What do we do if the droughts are so severe, those very expensive, massive storage systems fail? How do you put a storage system in place that you can count on for the next 50, 60 years? We don’t know what’s coming at us for sure.”
Don’t wait for insurance to protect you; it might be able to bail you out of a three-year drought, but how about a 10-year one? Dig swales and cold holes and dugouts. Throw sticks in creeks and build dams with mud and weeds. This spring, channel your inner beaver.
Nikki Wiart is a new farmer living in Castor, Alta., writing when her garden, bees, chickens, and pigs allow.