Prairies remain dangerously dry

His tractor loaded with two bales for his cattle in another field, Bob Fraser leaves his hay stacks and travels along a back road south of High River, Alta., Dec. 5  |  Mike Sturk photo

A map on Agriculture Canada’s drought monitor website tells a depressing and somewhat scary story.

With the exception of a region from North Battleford, Sask. to west of Edmonton, nearly all the agricultural land on the Prairies is dry or in a drought.

Making matters worse, a large chunk of the map, around Regina and southeast of Calgary, is in a severe, extreme or exceptional drought.

Snow this autumn in Saskatchewan and Alberta, followed by warm temperatures that melted the snow, reduced the size and severity of the drought. Nonetheless, soil conditions remain dry across much of the southern Prairies, said Trevor Hadwen, agro-climate specialist with Agriculture Canada in Regina.

“Alberta and western Saskatchewan have improved. They’re still below normal and they’re still dry but not in (as) a critical situation as they were, say, at the beginning of September,” he said.

“(But) I think soil moisture is a concern right through the southern portion of the Prairies…. The biggest concern still remains right in south-central Saskatchewan.”

The lack of rain in southern Saskatchewan and other parts of Western Canada was the dominant story of the 2017 growing season. Conditions were severely dry in south-central Saskatchewan: Regina received 1.8 millimetres of rain in July, the second lowest amount on record.

As of Nov. 30, Agriculture Canada said the area around Regina and southwest to the U.S. border is in extreme drought, including a pocket that’s classified as an exceptional drought.

Agriculture Canada ranks droughts D1, D2, D3, D4, representing moderate drought, severe, extreme and exceptional.

Hadwen said the D3 and D4 regions around Regina need a significant dump of snow this winter and a slow spring melt or spring rain to recover from the lack of moisture in 2017.

However, rebounding to normal soil moisture and water levels could take a long time.

“The more severe the drought the less quickly it can recover,” Hadwen said, adding the drought of 2017 was especially hard on perennial plants.

“There’s a lot of forage and pasture in that region. That won’t recover real quick, even with a lot of rain next spring. You need that fall rain to recover the root systems of those plants.”

Conditions may have improved in the western half of the Prairies, but the situation deteriorated this fall in Manitoba and eastern Saskatchewan. A different Drought Monitor map, illustrating precipitation from early October to early December, shows that everything east of Moose Jaw is yellow, orange or red.

Those colours mean that much of Manitoba and part of southeastern Saskatchewan received 40 to 60 percent of normal precipitation over the last two months. Numerous pockets in Manitoba received less than 40 percent of the normal amount of rain and snow.

That dryness was evident in the first week of December south of Portage la Prairie, Man. Many fields were bare and soil on the surface was parched and crumbly.

“You’re getting some drying of the soils at this point of the winter,” Hadwen said.

“That should be insulated by a thick layer of snow and that moisture being held (in).”

In early December the Manitoba government issued its fall conditions report, which summarizes the flooding risk for next spring. The report confirmed that soil moisture is drier than normal.

“Soil moisture in most Manitoba river basins is generally drier than the soil moisture observed in the past three years.”

The prairie drought of 2017 may persist into 2018 because the dry conditions have been around longer than many assume.

A large area received minimal rain from seeding time until the end of July, but the lack of precipitation began months earlier, Hadwen said.

“Anything in the southern portion (of the Prairies), the drought really started last winter, and nobody paid a lot of attention to it because we had been so wet,” he said.

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