Southern Alberta farmers say spring storm needed to quench parched soil

In recent years, southern Alberta farmer Stephen Vandervalk says he can’t remember a winter as dry as the one that’s about to end.

Vandervalk farms canola, barley, durum and a little bit of hay between Claresholm and Fort Macleod, a little over an hour south of Calgary.

“In general, our fields have been brown for more days than they’ve had snow on them, for sure, throughout the winter. Which is very, very unusual, right?” said Vandervalk, who is also the Alberta vice president with the Western Canada Wheat Growers Association.

According to the Alberta government’s data on precipitation, Vandervalk is correct.

The data shows it hasn’t been this dry, at this time of the year on Vandervalk’s farm for at least six to 12 years. 

Elsewhere, near Cardston, Medicine Hat and a large part of central Alberta, the data shows it hasn’t been this dry in 50 years.

“For agriculture, for people looking on the ground, it’s been quite warm and windy. The concern is definitely there,” said Ralph Wright, who manages Alberta Climate Information Service within Alberta Agriculture and Forestry.

Wright said these past three months are typically the driest of the year, but in some areas of the province, those levels are unusually dry.

Vandervalk said some farmers in the area have already started seeding, which he said is weeks ahead of schedule. He said farmers want to take advantage of any moisture in the land before the sun and wind suck it up.

So, he said, a spring snowstorm would sure help.

“Either that or obviously a big rain would be good, for sure, to get this ground recharged,” said Vandervalk.

March is typically dry — but what’s typical?

Wright said March is not typically known for being a moist month. Rather, he said, it’s the end of the six driest months that start in October.

February is typically the driest, according to Wright, while the wettest months are April to June.

But he said the data is based on average precipitation levels and typically weather bounces up and down between the extremes. As such, March is also known for having freak spring snowstorms.

Vandervalk said the ground is often still frozen in March, so snow wouldn’t necessarily help. But this year, he said any added moisture would penetrate the soil because the ground has already thawed.

He said it’s not just farmers who should be worried about this dry spell.

“There’s huge fire risks … people’s water supplies can be at risk, especially people who are on wells, because it’s amazing — you get a few dry years in a row, your wells can start drying up,” said Vandervalk.

Wright said if history is a teacher at all, people will see many times throughout the meteorological record that these dry spells begin abruptly, end abruptly and are hard to predict.

He believes the take-home message is “wait and see.”

“I just see this time and time again, where the weather that we’ve had over the last week, or month or several months, is not a good predictor of the weather we’re going to get next week, next month or the next several months,” said Wright.

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