Calming the Waters

Water is life. But it can also bring death.

Agriculture producers have always had a complicated relationship with water. It’s true that without it, crops fail to grow, animals starve and the industry falters. But excessive precipitation and flooding won’t work either. Producers continuously ride the line between drought and deluge.

Measures to combat extreme weather and maintain optimal soil moisture have been taken, of course. Mass irrigation and ditching through the Canadian prairies has helped farmers avoid lengthy catastrophes. But drought and flooding still takes place—just last year 80% of Alberta farmers were affected by dry conditions, prompting the provincial government to declare the event an agriculture disaster, and much of Southern Alberta (including rural and populated areas) was impacted by heavy flooding in 2013.

soybean irrigation cropped

Above: A typical irrigation rig waters a field of soybeans. © United Soybean Board

Our hydrology project titled “South Saskatchewan River Basin Hydrologic Modeling to Support Agricultural Risk Management”, is taking a close look at how water moves through the entire hydrological cycle and is used by agricultural producers. We want to know how water collects on the surface of the earth, moves overland, through soil and into the atmosphere.

Public interest in the current state of water within the South Saskatchewan River Basin (SSRB) is high. Water levels in the SSRB may be decreasing for a variety of reasons including climate change. This could increase the risk of water not being available to agriculture, commercial and residential users, and is also concerning from an ecological standpoint—with less water in our rivers and streams, aquatic species struggle to survive as well.

On the other hand, flooding has affected thousands within the SSRB in recent years. The 2013 Calgary flood was a dramatic example of the power and seemingly unpredictable nature of prairie flooding. But flooding isn’t the only excess-moisture enemy to farmers. Wet soils caused by high precipitation or runoff can limit farmers’ ability to seed wet ground, and can lead to poor seed germination, as well as soil waterlogging and oxygen deficiency in the rooting zone.

Over the next few months, we will provide readers with a look into our hydrology research. We will show you how we collect accurate information to construct a model that can be used by the insurance industry to support viable risk management tools to protect agricultural producers against the formidable threats of drought and flooding. We are hopeful that the model developed in this project will have broader applications outside the agriculture industry.

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