by Theresa Peluso 

Imagine living in a place and time where access to safe drinking water and adequate water for your basic needs is a constant struggle:  that place could very well be Lanark County in 90 years’ time.

On Saturday, January 12 of this year, the Community Stewardship Council of Lanark County (CSCLC) and Mississippi Valley Conservation (MVC) sponsored a free, all-day workshop at the Almonte Old Town Hall to explain to the audience of about 100 people the impacts and lessons learned from the Drought of 2012. Nine extremely knowledgeable and accomplished presenters spoke at length about how the drought affected different aspects of our community:  water flows in the Mississippi River, hydro-generation, Almonte’s water supply, agriculture, forests and wetlands, groundwater and wells, health and safety, and long-term implications.

It would be difficult to share with you the wealth of information that was provided, but some facts and analyses really stand out.

Droughts in this area are not new; during the 1950s and early 1960s, droughts similar to last year’s occurred, with this difference: last year was the warmest one on record.  As a result, the increased evapotranspiration last summer resulted in a negative water surplus of about minus 125 mm, compared with a previous all-time low of plus 50 mm during the 1950s. (The average water surplus during the last 60 years has been roughly in the range of plus 200 mm.)  Since I myself don’t have a mathematical background, you may want to view the data presented at this workshop via this link to the MVC website: http://www.mvc.on.ca/conservation-education/climate-change/215-drought-2012-impacts-and-lessons-learned-in-the-mississippi-valley-workshop.

Last summer, as we anxiously scanned the sky for signs of rain to nourish our trees, crops, pastures, and gardens, and replenish our rivers and aquifers, our fears of a water shortage were confirmed by announcements that we were in fact experiencing a drought, and requests by the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources (OMNR) agencies to voluntarily reduce our water consumption by 10% (Level 1 drought), then 20% (Level 2 drought).  The storms that did occur made no appreciable difference since most of the rain that fell quickly evaporated before penetrating the soil.

MVC, who control the water levels of the Mississippi River by regulating the flow of water from the reservoir lakes in the Mississippi watershed, have found that the last 10 years have been unpredictable.  Paul Lehman and Jennifer North explained how, instead of the snow melt and resulting peak flows occurring at a predictable time each spring (usually mid-April), the dates have varied dramatically, making it difficult for them to adjust the water flows. From January 1 to December 3, 2012 the stream flows of the Mississippi River (measured at Appleton) were below the historical average and close to the historical low.  Fortunately for us, the abundant snowfalls we’ve had this winter have nearly completely restored water levels for our region, to low normal for now.

Mississippi Mills’ Director of Roads and Public Works, Troy Dunlop, provided interesting insights on how municipal staff and Almonte residents responded to the drought announcement.  The impact of the drought on the municipal wells was observed during the latter part of June, 2012 in the form of lower than normal water levels and increased turbidity (cloudiness). Despite the declaration of a Level 1 drought by provincial authorities on July 2, water consumption actually went up from 2,300 m3 per day to 3,300 m3!  After serious, extensive deliberation as to whether to declare a water ban, the likelihood of increasing drought conditions prompted the Town of Mississippi Mills to put the ban into effect for Almonte residents, who rely on the municipal wells. The ban was heavily publicized.

Water consumption by Almonte residents then decreased from an average of 2,750 to 2,300 m3, and stabilized at 2,400 m3, enabling the water levels in the municipal wells to recover. People who understood the importance of economizing water usage followed the water restrictions carefully.  Others noted that washing their cars and topping up their pools were not listed as restrictions, and chose to do so.  Needless to say, the water usage by-laws are being amended accordingly.  The fact that Carleton Place and Ottawa were not subject to the same restrictions made some residents resentful of the water limitations.  (Unlike Almonte, Carleton Place and Ottawa take their drinking water from the river and don’t rely on aquifers and associated municipal wells.) Once the municipality determined that water availability was no longer a concern, the ban was lifted on September 10. Mr. Dunlop projected that additional well capacity is needed to ensure an adequate water supply in the next decade for Almonte.

Bruce Moore, of the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural, explained the impact of the drought on farmers. Because of the timing of the drought, with the early onset of warm weather followed by frost, and low water levels and little precipitation in the spring, farmers experienced dry wells, famished livestock, variable crop yields, a huge amount of worry and extra work, and lack of income.  Many farmers had to cull their herds and buy extra feed for their animals, and the extra stress on their fields and pastures from last year’s drought may continue to have repercussions this coming year.  Farmers who haven’t given up are now looking at irrigating their fields, planting drought-resistant crops, clearing more land, changing their farming methods, and using water more economically.

Steve D’Eon, of the Forest Stewardship Committee of Renfrew County, explained how many trees suffered because the abundant water they count on in the spring was not there. Newly planted seedlings, and the leaf buds, shoots and roots of many older trees were damaged.   The early warm weather tempted a number of trees to leaf early, and they were then literally nipped in the bud by the ensuing frost a few weeks later. The prolonged drought has stressed many trees, making them more susceptible to disease and dieback. Mr. D’Eon recommended that residents with trees on their property monitor them for dieback and pest infestations, thin out stands of trees, avoid fertilizing their trees, and water the trees heavily and infrequently, if possible. Whatever you do, don’t add to their stress!

Shaun Thompson, of OMNR, explained the importance of wetlands in the watershed. Approximately 15 to 20% of the Mississippi watershed is wetland, consisting of bogs, swamps, fens, marshes, vernal pools, and small creeks and streams that feed these areas. Wetlands are a critical part of our ecosystem for so many reasons: they reduce flooding by soaking up precipitation, then releasing it gradually, improving water quality and soil quality and moisture in the process; they recycle nutrients by speeding up decomposition of plant debris; they recharge and discharge the groundwater that flows down into the aquifers that supply our wells; they help to moderate climate extremes; and they provide a diverse variety of habitats for many different species of plants and animals.  Wetlands are adaptable; they dry out periodically, and revive with fresh rainfall, although their species composition may change.  If our region experiences a prolonged drought, these watershed wetlands will experience extensive drying, and lose their ability to sponge up water. If that happens, they will no longer supply a slow and steady supply of water to our lakes and rivers. As a result, many species of flora and fauna living there will migrate or die.  In addition, any precipitation we do get will run directly into lakes and rivers without us people ever being able to utilize it for our own needs. Mr. Thompson confirmed an observation from the audience that most wetlands have still not recovered to 2011 levels. This in turn has created a shortfall in the “slow” water supply from our wetlands within the hydrological cycle; in other words, we have less stored water available.

Peter Stanton, of Stanton Drilling Inc., explained how water availability depends on the hydrological cycle, and how water is affected by gravity. Water can take many years to recharge an aquifer fully. Normally our region gets 36 inches (about 1 metre) of precipitation annually.  Specific conditions govern the supply of water to our wells: geology, slope, and soil type affect water movement from the surface down to groundwater. Information about the depth of your well (shallow wells and wells drilled in bedrock are more likely to run dry in a drought) and a water analysis are found in your well record. In answer to a question from the audience, he explained that neighbours on private wells often share the same aquifers with neighbours, so they need to cooperate to use available water carefully.

Andy Kerr-Wilson, of the CSCLC, explained how last year’s drought resulted in increased susceptibility to illness, especially for older people, and those living in areas with little or no green space. Other health issues were reported by people in the audience that day, such as poor water quality (including algal blooms) and lack of availability (failed wells), heatstroke, dehydration, fear of forest fires (especially when neighbouring municipalities were advised to keep their lawns well watered to avoid the risk of fire), stress and additional physical labour experienced by farmers and plant-nursery operators as they struggled to keep their businesses running.  Mr. Kerr-Wilson explained the need for health agencies and government officials to ensure that appropriate information and medical facilities are in place to alleviate these problems.

Mr. Lehman explained how MVC, in collaboration with Queen’s University and the University of Guelph, used data compiled for the period 1974 – 2002 to forecast average temperatures and precipitation for the next 90 years (in three periods – 2010-2039, 2040-2069, 2070-2099). Their computer model shows an average increase in temperature by about 4 degrees Celsius by the year 2099, decreased precipitation, increased run-off, and significantly more evapotranspiration.  (It should be noted that this is only a model, albeit based on extensive data, and what actually happens in the future is uncertain.) In addition to a projected overall decrease in water levels, water flows during the fall and winter are expected to vary drastically, precipitation during the spring will decrease (at a time when trees and crops are most in need of water), summer flows will be very low, and there will be greater shoreline damage, risks of floods in fall and winter, and unsafe ice conditions.

As a result of these changes, government organizations such as MVC will need to improve their capacity for watershed management and water flow monitoring and assessment.  The reservoir capacity along the Mississippi River may need to be increased by 25%. But it doesn’t stop there.  Mr. Egginton explained how we will all need to adapt to these new climate conditions.  Boats may be unable to travel as far inland as they do now, and docks may need to be lowered or converted to floating docks. Higher water temperatures, loss of spawning grounds and habitat, and water degradation may cause certain fish species to die or fail to reach maturity.  Water availability for industrial uses, such as power generation and mining, will decrease. Less water will also be available for irrigation and farm operations. Last but not least, people will be faced with water-use restrictions, water-quality problems, and increased illness from water contamination.

As you can see, the picture of the future that these experts are painting is very worrisome. While provincial and municipal staff do their best to manage risks and resources to protect our health, safety, and stability, we ourselves need to do what we can. This means we must conserve water and also reduce carbon emissions that exacerbate climate change, cooperate with the rules and guidelines that are developed for our benefit, cooperate and share resources with our neighbours, and take good care of our natural environment in all its manifestations.  The drought of 2012 was the cumulative effect of events that began the previous year, and shows that we need to be aware of weather pattern changes and their future effect on the amount of precipitation we receive and store in our watershed for our use, enjoyment, and quality of life in all its forms.