ENVIRONMENT

Dry wells and springs of hope

MARY McIVER June 6 1988
ENVIRONMENT

Dry wells and springs of hope

MARY McIVER June 6 1988

Dry wells and springs of hope

ENVIRONMENT

Water is a commodity that most people take for granted-until it becomes scarce.

Then it becomes a precious resource. That is particularly evident during the current drought affecting Alberta

and Saskatchewan and several parts of the United States. In Alberta, one woman took a job as a dancer in a bar because her husband refused to sell their failing farm — and, she said, they needed the extra money. In Los Angeles, authorities are banning residents from washing down their patios and sidewalks. And Toronto Star writer David Crane drew a sizzling response from International Trade Minister John Crosbie by criticizing water-related aspects of the proposed free trade agreement.

Crane claimed that during future droughts the Americans could have access to Canadian water resources. Declared Crosbie: “We are not obliged to sell one thimbleful of H2O to the U.S.”

The drought on the Prairies has produced its own pattern of polit-

ical reactions—one that is growing increasingly familiar. For the past four years Alberta and Saskatchewan—and, to a lesser degree, Manitoba—have endured serious drought. The resulting sequence of events creates a domino effect: lower-than-normal rainfall and lighter spring runoffs from a lack of snow cause dry pasturelands. That means less pasture for livestock so that ranchers have to rely more on stored feed to fatten cattle. But the drought also affects the crops—and the low yields force ranchers to . buy hay and grain on the open market. The poor yields not only cut profits for the grain growers, but also drive the price of food stock beyond reach of the ranchers.

Through a variety of assistance programs, provincial authorities provide some aid—and crop insurance covers some of the farmers’ losses. Provincial officials usually ask Ottawa for help. In fact, the federal government has paid out a total of $221 million in drought assistance since the 1984-1985 crop year. But many

farmers and ranchers are experiencing an income squeeze.

This year officials from Alberta and Saskatchewan, under pressure from farmers and ranchers, have already appealed to their federal counterpart, John Wise. Declared Saskatchewan Premier Grant Devine: “I really don’t believe that the provincial taxpayer can handle a disaster.” Wise agreed to meet with Devine and other western officials on May 31 to discuss what can be done. On May 25 Wise told the Commons, “If this develops into a full-blown drought, we can see action being taken.” But later he said that he was not prepared to discuss any details.

Across the United States, dryness is threatening crops, causing forest fires and prompting water rationing in some areas. Rainfall in parts of North Carolina and Tennessee measured as little as 25 per cent the normal amount during the first three months of the year, and problem areas have extended into Virginia, South Carolina, Georgia and Alabama. In Nevada, “the drought is still

on with a passion,” said the state’s climatologist, John James, who chairs a committee considering both longterm and short-term measures to alleviate the problem. Northern California is experiencing its worst water shortage in 11 years, and farmers, businesses and residents have been asked to cut back on water use. In San Francisco, authorities have ordered residents to cut consumption by 25 per cent.

In Los Angeles, annual rainfall usually measures close to 15 inches. From July 1, 1987, to April 1, the rainfall measured 13.4 inches—considered normal for that period. But the city depends largely on water supplied by runoff from the snowpack in the Sierra Nevada, the mid-California mountain range. And for the second year in a row snowpack levels have been below normal—by as much as 60 per cent in some areas. As a result, city authorities have implemented measures that include a ban on the washing down of sidewalks, patios and driveways and the use of decorative fountains unless owners recycle water. Residents who fail to comply within six months will be issued a letter of warning, followed by restrictions on their water supply and, ultimately, by disconnection. Owners of multiple-dwelling buildings who fail to meet conservation measures

will have a 10-per-cent surcharge added to their water bills. After two years the surcharge will rise to 100 per cent. The city is also providing preferential planning permission to builders of commercial, industrial and multifamily homes who landscape properties with drought-resistant plants and install other conservation measures.

Meanwhile, in Western Canada the drought has reached alarming proportions. In fact, some meteorologists have likened the situation to the dustbowl conditions of the 1930s. Spring grazing lands are parched, and ranchers are being forced to supplement grass feeding with hay and grain. But scarce hay is now selling at $80 to $95 a ton—double the prices of only six months ago. As a result, many Prairie ranchers have shipped their yearlings to feedlots instead of fattening their own cattle for slaughter.

Alberta, which has experienced six years of below-average rainfall, has been especially hard hit by the drought. Low snowfall and poor surface runoff have left shallow wells of 50 feet or less dry or nearly empty. And it is not only ranchers and farmers who have suffered. Richard Fowler, president of the Alberta Urban Municipalities Association, said that when agriculture suffers a depression, “it has a highly detrimental effect on ur-

ban municipalities as well. It affects everybody from car dealers to restaurants.” Residents of the bedroom community of Sunset Ridge Estates near Calgary are among those experiencing the problems. The seven-home subdivision is normally serviced by five wells, but one is dry, one is producing nothing but mud, and the reduced production of the remaining wells is inadequate. As a result, the families haul water for their $150,000 homes from Nose Hill Creek, five kilometres south, using an old wagon pulled by a tractor.

In Saskatchewan, the drought has also had a severe effect. Mike Smith, a rancher in the Mankota area near the U.S. border, owns about 300 cattle and in most years plants about 500 acres of wheat and oats. In normal conditions, Smith would now start cutting hay and cultivating land left in fallow for the year. But on May 24, his 52nd birthday, Smith was moving his cattle from pasture to pasture, trucking water to them and looking for the best birthday present that he said he could get: “ an inch of rain.” Rodney Morrison, a grain farmer near Lafleche, usually grows wheat and a small amount of hay on 500 acres. But he says that this year conditions are too dry to grow any hay. “I’ve never seen it this dry right off the bat in the spring,” he added. “We virtually haven’t had any rain since Auof last year.” If the weather

continues, he added, “I’ll probably have to go try to find a job. I can’t survive just on the crop insurance.”

But to benefit from insurance in a dry year, there first has to be a crop. And even seeding in dry earth may disrupt the soil, making it vulnerable to severe wind erosion. As a result, desperate farmers and ranchers continue their reliance on government assistance.

But, as Alberta Wheat Pool spokesman Douglas Brunton pointed out, dependence on government aid creates drawbacks of its own. In that province, 44 per cent of the gross income that its 45,000 grain farmers earned last year was in the form of government assistance. Declared Brunton: “[The farmers] already depend heavily on government, and now the Canadian government can go to the well again.” Added Brunton,

referring to speculation that there will be an autumn federal election: “This will be an issue for a fall election.” Other experts say that panic over the issue is premature. Declared Roger Hardick, chief hydrogeologist at Alberta Environment in Edmonton: “There is no indication of any major climatic change or drought cycle. It is still too early.”

Meanwhile, on a hill near Cardston, Alta., Wallace Mountain Horse Sr., spiritual leader of the Blood Indian Reserve, is camping out in what he describes as his thunder tepee, engaged in a ritual attempt to induce sustained rain. His gesture is a reminder that even when the wells run dry, there are springs of hope.

MARY McIVER

with

JOHN HOWSE

in Calgary,

DEANA DRIVER

in Regina,

DOUG SMITH

in Winnipeg,

ROSS LAVER

in Ottawa

and

ANNE GREGOR

in Los Angeles