University of Saskatchewan researcher Dr. John Pomeroy (PhD) says the ways we’re managing water resources will no longer cut it.

The Prairies are entering another year of a multi-year drought, with soil moisture, snowpacks and streamflows at levels far below normal in many areas. An exceptional early-March snowstorm lessened the drought but was not nearly enough to overcome it.

Climate change has arrived, and water is where it reveals itself.

“We’re seeing new climates emerging in Western Canada and we don’t fully understand them yet and what they’ll mean. We will have to adapt very quickly in how we manage water and manage every aspect of our lives,” said Pomeroy, the Canada Research Chair in Water Resources and Climate Change and Director of the Global Water Futures program at the University of Saskatchewan (USask).

The drought in Saskatchewan isn’t the worst on record, but the scale of it is exceptional; drought persists from the Prairies to the North, and through the boreal forest across much of Canada.

“Having a northern drought associated with a prairie drought is quite rare. That didn’t happen back in 2001. And even in the Dirty Thirties, farmers were able to move up into the Peace River District or Northern Saskatchewan and find areas with adequate moisture. They wouldn’t be able to now,” said Pomeroy.

The Prairies and the Rockies rarely share a drought, so rivers tend to be high when the land is dry. But in 2024, critically low snowpacks in the mountains foretell a spring trickle instead of a torrent.

“We have to realize that for the South Saskatchewan River, 99 per cent of the water that reaches Saskatoon comes from Alberta, and anywhere from 60 to 80 per cent of that water is mountain snowmelt coming through. So what happens in those mountains completely determines our water availability for Saskatchewan,” Pomeroy said.

The glaciers, whose meltwater provides a safety net in times of drought, continue to shrink.

“They can’t carry on like that forever. So we just have a few decades left of that glacier contribution on the North Saskatchewan and it’s pretty well minimal now on the South Saskatchewan,” Pomeroy said.

Pomeroy—director of the USask Centre for Hydrology and a distinguished professor in the College of Arts and Science’s Department of Geography and Planning—is one of the world’s most accomplished snow hydrologists.

The USask water scientist expects that this drought, like all droughts, will end. In fact, climate models predict an increase in precipitation for the Prairies and the Rockies over the long term. The Saskatchewan River will continue to flow, even if it sometimes runs low in late summer.

But in a Western Canada coping with climate change, droughts will be more severe, rainstorms will be more intense, and plentiful water will no longer be taken for granted.

Water resources in Saskatchewan are crucial not only for households and agriculture, but for mining, electricity generation and maintaining ecosystems such as the Saskatchewan River Delta—along with the livelihoods of the Indigenous communities who depend on them.

That means we need to start having difficult discussions at the provincial, national and international levels about how water resources are managed and about who gets water when there isn’t enough to go around, Pomeroy insistsIt will take federal leadership to ensure that all voices are brought to the table, including Indigenous communities whose water rights have frequently been disregarded.

“We’re going to have to co-operate much more on water because we have shared water resources,” said Pomeroy.

Scientific research like that underway at USask will be essential. Improved water predictions will give decision-makers lead time on water management decisions. A better understanding of the needs of ecosystems will inform how much water is needed to sustain fish, muskrat and other animal populations.

The new USask-led Global Water Futures Observatories is providing much-needed scientific data. This network of early warning observation stations gathers and organizes sophisticated information on prairie soil moisture, lakes, ponds, forests and snowpacks, and on upstream mountain snowmelt and glacier water supplies using state-of-the-art hydrometeorological and water quality sensors.

As Pomeroy sounds the alarm, he is also resolute that there is a way forward.

Canada’s dams and reservoirs could be used in a co-ordinated way as valves to adjust river flows. Crop irrigation can be made more efficient and new crop varieties can be developed to grow in drier conditions. With some changes in practice, snow and evaporation on farmers’ fields can be better managed.

“The university is absolutely committed and devoted to finding solutions to these problems,” said Pomeroy. “We’re working on all these issues and I think that will provide tremendous benefits to Saskatchewan.”


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