Skip to main content

Low snowpack, warm temperatures raise concern about continued Alberta drought


The Canada Research Chair in Water Resources and Climate Change says eastern and southern Alberta are facing some of the worst drought conditions on record – including the Dustbowl years of the 1930s and the severe drought of 2001-01

"That drought extended over parts of the province from 1999 to 2004," said John Pomeroy.

"We've had lower river flows in '22-'23 than we did back in that drought. So hydrologically, the drought we're in now is worse than that."

He says the snowpack in the Rockies is overall around 70 per cent of the median for this time of year, and the recent warm spell has started significantly melting. 

This week, avalanche professionals warned of spring-like conditions in the mountains.

Snowpack and glaciers help keep reservoirs up, limit low water levels during summer months and keep rivers cooler and better oxygenated.

"It's lower than it was last year at this time, and last year turned out to be a disaster," Pomeroy said. "So I'm quite concerned."

Reservoirs are also well below normal levels, with not enough water in the mountains to replenish them.

Spray Lakes, for example, was five metres below normal before icing up in November.

Oldman Reservoir and St Mary Reservoir are also extremely low, sitting at 28 per cent and 15 per cent respectively.

The province held a stakeholder town hall meeting on Tuesday to discuss water licenses and drought concerns for the coming year.

In the town hall, Environment and Protected Areas Minister Rebecca Schulz was asked about what happens when there isn't enough water in river systems to fulfill the water licenses downstream.

She said she hopes it doesn't come to that, and said sharing agreements should be in place before it gets that far.

"Water storage doesn't help us when we are already in a drought situation and don't really expect a lot of snow or rain," Shultz said.

Low snowfalls in many parts of the province could have major implications for agriculture, already coming off two years of widespread crop failure due to drought.

"We just have a paper we're submitting (for peer review), a big study on this across the prairies where we showed that in drought years, about half of the crop growth is from snowmelt," Pomeroy says.

Fire season in Alberta traditionally begins in March.

Last year - 2023 - was the worst fire season on record - hot, dry and destructive, triggering mass evacuation orders and stretching the world's firefighters to the limit.

Some of those fires are still burning.

"We're down to 61 (active wildfires) today, but that's still a heck of a lot of active wildfires that are going to be there when the season opens up in March," said Derrick Forsythe, fire Information officer with the province.

He cautions it's too soon to know for sure what the upcoming season will bring.

"El Nino cycles are correlated with warmer, drier temperatures," Forsythe said.

"We're not seeing any indication that's breaking down as of today or in the immediate future, there's hope that it will start to weaken in the spring." Top Stories

Stay Connected