Early predictions worsen drought concerns

Large portions of the Prairies could be facing another drought if Environment Canada’s spring and summer forecast comes to fruition.

It is already bone dry in many regions and the forecast calls for a continuation of that weather pattern through much of Alberta, Saskatchewan and western Manitoba.

“That is pretty ominous,” said David Phillips, senior climatologist with Environment Canada.

The forecast also calls for a warmer-than-normal growing season, which would exacerbate the dry conditions.

Phillips said the topsoil is already parched in many regions of the Prairies.

Winnipeg has had the driest start to a year since Environment Canada began tracking precipitation in 1872. The city received about 25 percent of its usual rainfall for the Jan. 1 to May 9 period.

“They should be baling and bagging right now instead of looking at the sky,” he said.

“A good portion of Manitoba really is in a desperate situation already and we’re just into the early part of May.”

Strong winds haven’t helped conditions in the dry areas of the Prairies.

“If there are any beads of moisture in that ground, they have been sucked up by the winds and by the very dry atmosphere,” said Phillips.

Drew Lerner, president of World Weather Inc., agrees with the drier bias outlook.

He is most concerned about eastern Saskatchewan and southern Manitoba, which will be parched for the longest period. He predicts there will be a short-term reprieve in those areas in June but a return to dry conditions in July and August.

In the western Prairies, it is expected to be arid in June with timely showers and thunderstorms in southern and eastern Alberta and western Saskatchewan in July and August.

The extent of the dryness and heat will depend on the positioning and intensity of a ridge he anticipates will extend north from the U.S. high plains into Saskatchewan.

Anything east of the ridge will be dry. There will be occasional rain showers on the backside of the ridge but not enough to address soil moisture deficits.

“The one thing that I tell people absolutely, with a high level of confidence, is that we are not going to fix our subsoil deficits,” said Lerner.

“They will have to live by each rain event that comes along.”

Dan Mazier, president of Keystone Agricultural Producers, said there has been precious little rainfall in Manitoba, which has a tendency to have soggy springs.

“We really haven’t had a general rain in all of April,” he said.

Farmers with clay soils are doing well because they have decent subsoil moisture but those with sandier soils desperately need rain.

Mazier said it is extremely dry in the Red River Valley this year, which is unusual.

Daphne Cruise, crops extension specialist with Saskatchewan Agriculture, said dry conditions are at the forefront of producers’ minds in the south coming off last year’s drought.

“Those in the north have indicated they’re in decent shape for the time being,” she said.

Farms in the west-central, southwest and southeast regions of the province could use a good rain.

“Even if it slows up seeding for a day or two, I don’t think anybody would mind,” said Cruise.

Many growers in the central part of the province were pleasantly surprised by last year’s yields given the dry conditions. They attributed it to good subsoil moisture from 2016 rains but those reserves are gone, so a drought could be devastating.

Harry Brook, crop specialist with Alberta Agriculture, said there is very little soil moisture in central and southern Alberta and the northern Peace region, making those areas susceptible to drought.

“That’s a big part of our cropping system,” he said.

However, most of the Peace region is saturated and could use some drying down, so the dry and warm conditions would be welcome there.

His biggest concern is pastureland. Ranchers have significantly drawn down hay supplies in southern Alberta. Hay has become expensive, forcing farmers to turn their cattle out on pasture.

“You really damage your re-growth potential if you’re grazing early,” said Brook.

“You’re almost guaranteed that if it is a dry year you’re going to really be in trouble come June.”

Brook said he takes some comfort in the fact that long-term weather forecasts are notoriously “lousy.”

Even Phillips acknowledged that.

“Precipitation is a bit of a crapshoot. If it was up to us, we’d rather not issue a forecast of precipitation but I know that’s all important to farmers,” he said.

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