The South Saskatchewan River runs dry (Page 1 of 4)
The river is the lifeblood of the prairies, but its future flow will be determined by a supply-demand equation — and the math doesn’t look promising
By Allan Casey with photography by Nayan Sthankiya
||See photos from in and around the drying South Saskatchewan River.
||Discover more videos, interactive features and photo essays about climate prosperity and Canada.
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The drying Saskatchewan River
In the last century the flow of the river has dropped by 12 percent. Can the South Saskatchewan be saved?Read more
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Discover more videos, interactive features and photo essays about climate prosperity
In silence, we bump along the uneven pavement of
a little-used secondary highway, watching the west
turn almost to desert. It seems utterly the wrong
landscape for a holiday afloat. In the rear-view mirror,
the boat on its trailer tugs to and fro like a worried
pony being led into danger. My sailing pal Mark and I
silently scan the treeless, cactus-sage hills ahead, home to bull
snake and burrowing owl. This is the bleach-bone heart of
the Palliser Triangle, named for the British government
scout who, in 1860, declared the area too dry for settlement.
Lewis, my 19-year-old son, is jammed in with the back-seat
gear and has come along to ferry the vehicle back to our
destination point. He now breaks the spell with a declaration
of his own, both on the forbidding landscape and on
our middle-aged quest upon it.
“No country for old men,” he says.
|Chart the areas of Saskatchewan most susceptible to a warming climate. |
And so it would be, were it not for the river. We pass down
out of the high-and-dry ranch country into fields where irrigation
booms send their beneficial spray ssst-ssst-ssst
verdant crops, to the rim of the great valley. And there is the
muddy, green, cool, reliable South Saskatchewan River.
The name, pretty to my ear, is from the Cree for “swift
water,” and it is fittingly lent to a whole province where all of
us — plants, animals, people — owe our livelihood to the precious
flow its two arms carry out to us from the mountains.
The river sustains our lawns and our livestock, percolates in
our coffee makers, spins electricity out of our turbines, ices
our hockey rinks. It flows in the very cells of our children.
The South Saskatchewan has been compared to the
Colorado, another Rocky Mountains-born river bringing wealth to dry country. I pray it will not have met that tappedout
river’s sad fate by the time my son is an old man. Like
the Colorado, the South Saskatchewan is much diminished
by humans. Despite our low regional population in the west,
we manage to consume about one-third of its flow, which has
dropped naturally by 12 percent in the last century. With
human-driven climate change expected to hit hard in Palliser’s
drought-prone west, we here are taking stock of the one
natural resource on which our whole economic future rests.
The true danger is hard to know. A 2009 report by World
Wildlife Fund Canada called it the country’s most-threatened
river. Yet record rains this year have caused floods and widespread
crop damage. Amid such climatic uncertainty,
perhaps the real threats to the South Saskatchewan are
not drought or flood, but ignorance and confusion. As with every Canadian river and lake, hundreds of government,
academic and stewardship agencies at federal, provincial
and municipal levels attempt to study and manage the river,
directly or indirectly. There is no means to coordinate them.
Water is so abundant across most of Canada that we have
gotten away with such Byzantine management. When the
reckoning comes, it will surely come first to our dryland river.
After 150 years of settlement in the mercurial west, we cannot
answer the one question most basic to our livelihood:
will there always be enough water?
|Watch an animation on the prairies and drought.|
A good place to begin a search for answers is on the
river itself. Mark and I launch our flat-bottom sailboat at
Saskatchewan Landing, a historic ford that is now a provincial
park. The water under our hull, which has travelled through rugged clay canyons from the river’s birthplace in
Alberta, at the confluence of the Bow and Oldman rivers,
has already survived its greatest ordeal. Alberta irrigation is
the single largest consumer of South Saskatchewan River
water. Sixty-five percent of Canada’s irrigated farm acreage
is in southern Alberta, and by interprovincial agreement, the
province is allowed to consume up to half of the river flow.
Circular spray booms have turned the Lethbridge-Medicine
Hat corridor into high-value green polka dots of corn,
potatoes and beets; the highway is strung with french-fry
factories and vast intensive livestock operations.
We turn downstream instead, passing under a highvoltage
line into an invented waterworld of another kind. In Saskatchewan, we may envy Alberta’s canals, but by far
the most visible exploitation of the river is our own. In
1967, the province finished two dams to trap the river for
electrical power and to slake the municipal thirst of Regina
and points south. The river is plumbed to roughly half the
kitchen taps in the province today. The resulting Lake
Diefenbaker sprawls more than 200 kilometres behind the
Gardiner and Qu’Appelle dams, an aquatic playground
for parched southerners. Swimming, golf and affordable
cottaging are perks afforded by the impounded water.
Photographs often fail to capture the vast scale of this
time-rounded glacial spillway, and there is much beauty
alongshore as we travel. Hawks ride thermals over the baking
prickly pear cactus on the south-facing banks. The cooler shore
opposite harbours hawthorn and buffalo berry, ash and cottonwood.
Mark’s keen eye spots whitetail deer and pronghorn
antelope foraging on the bluffs. At night, we camp ashore like
cowboys and make fires from driftwood. The coyotes sing, the
stars blaze, and it is possible to think the west is still wild.
Yet the valley is unmistakably engineered, oddly lifting
our boat up as we go east until we are level with the prairie.
The massive reservoir corrals a whole summer’s runoff, to
be meted out in doses by the Gardiner Dam the rest of the
year. Endangered piping
plovers are drawn to nest on
the artificially wide sandy
beaches but must cope
with “managed” water that
typically rises six metres. We
pass a well-known fish farm using the cold mountain runoff
to raise the steelhead salmon often sold as “Lake
Diefenbaker trout” on better restaurant menus in Saskatoon
The river is odd by nature too. It gains hardly any new
water once it leaves Alberta, skirting semi-deserts and many
areas of internal drainage that donate hardly a drop to the
passing river. Massive side canyons have only tiny rivulets at
their bottoms — or none at all — and the river grows a mere
two percent in volume on its journey through Saskatchewan. Psychologically, it is fitting that this province chose to build
great dams, to literally hold on to our precious share of
water in a region defined by a lack of it.
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