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Western Prairies Face Impending Water Crisis

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  • Pat Neuman
    Western Prairies Face Impending Water Crisis Canada s western prairie provinces have an area of 2 million kms that lie in the rain shadow of the Rocky
    Message 1 of 1 , Apr 5, 2006
      Western Prairies Face Impending Water Crisis

      Canada's western prairie provinces have an area of 2 million kms
      that lie in the rain shadow of the Rocky Mountains and as a result,
      are the driest large area of southern Canada.
      by Staff Writers
      Edmonton, Canada (SPX) Apr 05, 2006
      The Canadian prairies are facing an unprecedented water crisis due
      to a combination of climate warming, increase in human activity and
      historic drought, says new research by the University of Alberta's
      Dr. David Schindler, one of the world's leading environmental
      "The western prairies are worse than other areas of Canada," said
      Schindler, co-author of a paper published in the
      journal "Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences," early online
      edition. "One of the referees on this paper said, 'wow, this is like
      looking out the window of a locomotive 10 seconds before the train
      crashes.' It is a very dire situation".

      Although most global studies rank Canada among the top five
      countries in terms of per-capita water supply, those rankings can be
      deceptive, argue Schindler and Dr. Bill Donahue, who co-authored the
      paper. Canada's western prairie provinces (WPP), for example, have
      an area of 2 million kms that lie in the rain shadow of the Rocky
      Mountains and as a result, are the driest large area of southern

      Little research has been done on the cumulative effects of climate
      warming, drought and human activity on water shortages. Schindler
      and Donahue found that the biggest threat was a combined one, made
      up of several ingredients.

      First, there is now considerable evidence that the 20th century,
      when settlers arrived, was the wettest century for at least a couple
      of millenia. What we think of as normal was not normal in the long-
      term. "Most earlier centuries had one or more prolonged droughts,
      some of 10-40 years," said Schindler. "So we should probably not
      expect a second wet century in a row."

      Climate warming is a second factor that will exacerbate any
      droughts. This new research shows that there is already a decline in
      glaciers that supply water to our rivers, snowpacks are dwindling
      and there is higher precipitation evaporation. The western prairies
      have already warmed by two to four degrees and this is expected to
      double by mid-century, the researchers argue in the paper.

      Our rapidly growing population also means we are using more water
      for industry and agriculture, both of which are increasing as well.
      Some rivers--the Bow and Oldman in southern Alberta--are already
      oversubscribed, says Schindler.

      Making it worse, we are destroying the features of our watersheds
      that protect these rivers, he said. "We drain or fill wetlands and
      destroy our riparian forests--all of the features that could help
      our landscape to retain the water it does get."

      One reason this dismal situation has been underestimated is that
      previous analyses have considered total annual flow, which has
      declined only slightly for most rivers. Schindler and Donahue looked
      at summer--May to August--flows. This is the period when human
      demand is at the highest for irrigation, agriculture and
      municipalities and when coldwater fisheries are vulnerable to high
      temperature and low oxygen.

      Although reducing greenhouse emissions would have the greatest
      effects several decades from now, it would have little short-term
      impact, says Schindler. "We cannot replace the glaciers so our only
      alternative is to get very serious about water conservation and
      protection of the watersheds that supply our water," he said.

      For example, it is imperative to use less water for agriculture
      through drought resistant crops or incentives for water conservation
      and to consider reusing water and low-flow devices as ways to
      conserve our supply. We should also consider if and where we want
      population and industry to increase, said Schindler.

      "As we show, the less water available to dilute pollutants, the more
      water quality problems we will see," said Schindler, adding parts of
      the southwest United States are currently experience water crises
      for the same reasons. "I don't think we want to face the same
      problems Los Angeles or Phoenix has, but they will come unless we
      start protecting our water."

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