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It could be a devastatingly dry summer in Alberta. So what can be done about it?

Image of dry field and a blue-grey sky. A close examination of the sky reveals the image of dry creek bed.

Though he left public office in 1985, former Alberta Premier Peter Lougheed remained vocal on issues of public interest for nearly two decades after.

Among those chief areas of interest for Alberta’s 10th premier was the future of the country’s water supply. In 2005, Lougheed warned Canadian politicians against sharing the country’s water supply with the United States. In a speech around that time, he suggested that Alberta’s most important resource was water, not oil and gas.

“We should not export our fresh water. We need it and we should conserve it,” Lougheed said in a speech to the Calgary branch of the Canadian Club in 2005. “We should communicate to the United States very quickly how firm we are about it.”

Fast forward to 2024 and the future of Alberta’s water supply looks likely to enter public consciousness in a way it hasn’t before.

A man wearing a suit and tie points at the camera.
Former Alberta premier Peter Lougheed gestures during a news conference in Calgary in 2002. In 2005, Lougheed warned against Alberta sharing its water with the United States. (The Canadian Press)

The province has seen dry conditions in the past. But this summer could be something else — below average snowpack, rivers running dry, unusually warm winters that turn into scorching summers with choking wildfires. Calgary could start restricting outdoor water use by May. Experts say it points to a fundamental environmental shift caused by climate change.

And Alberta will need to grapple with those conditions while shouldering unique challenges when it comes to its water supply. The province has Canada’s largest irrigated area, a major user of the province’s water supply. Much of it is situated in Palliser’s Triangle, an area initially considered unsuitable for farming due to arid conditions but brought to life with the use of irrigation.

The province will need to find solutions to how water is allocated between industry and municipalities. Eighty per cent of the province’s water supply is located in the north, while 80 per cent of its demands are in the semi-arid south. And the issuing of water licences is governed by an archaic system that dates to 1894.

The scope at which Alberta will face challenges isn’t yet understood. But one expert, Tricia Stadnyk, a professor and Canada Research Chair in hydrologic modelling with the University of Calgary’s Schulich School of Engineering, doesn’t see a way out of the challenges to come.

“Think of it as a sponge that’s been emptying for two years. We’d literally need two years worth of rainfall to pull us out of this right now,” she said.

“The chance of us coming out of this without declaring a state of emergency around water scarcity or water supply is very low.”

The challenging conditions, which in some parts of the province trace back years, have prompted some to ask whether it’s now imperative to have a conversation about the future of farming. Those conversations could revolve around what types of mitigation the province could develop coming into a hotter, drier future.

It’s a fundamental question for a key industry in a province already having a conversation about the future of its energy sector.

Front Burner24:05Drought bears down on Alberta

After a warm, dry winter, Albertans are preparing for what could be a devastatingly dry summer. Snowpack is low, reservoirs around the province are well below seasonal levels, and farmers are already anticipating a difficult growing season. But this isn’t a one-off. Experts say the multi-year drying trend is likely to continue, which will have major implications for water use in the province — the biggest of which is agriculture. Is the future of the province’s biggest industry at risk? CBC Calgary’s Joel Dryden explains what a deepening drought could mean for life in Alberta in the decades ahead.

Albertans have heard much about these problems caused by the drought. So, what can Albertans do about it?

In this series, “When In Drought,” CBC Calgary seeks to provide a platform for an ongoing conversation about how to manage and adapt to this unprecedented challenge. We’ll look at solutions surrounding how much water Albertans use, and where and how the resource needs to be shared.

We’ll follow southern Alberta farmers in the field trying to find ways to drought-proof their operations. And we’ll explore how to grow a province with less and less water available.

We’ll launch our first story on Tuesday, a look at Alberta’s near-billion-dollar plan to expand irrigation when southern Alberta farmers are already being told there’s not enough water to go around.

You can view all of the stories in this series at Have an idea for this series? E-mail us.

As the next few months unfold, we’ll add the stories to the map below. By the end of the summer, this map will contain stories from all around the province, focused on how drought and water restrictions are impacting communities.

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