The South Saskatchewan River runs dry (Page 2 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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Discover more videos, interactive features and photo essays about climate prosperity
|See photos from in and around the drying South Saskatchewan River
Our last day afloat, the artificial lake plays tricks with our
sense of place. Around Riverhurst, the sandy, flat banks
resemble those of the Nile seen from a felucca, minus the
pyramids. And then we seem to find ourselves in a regatta off the California coast. In the widest part of the reservoir,
deep-keel yachts sail out of the farming-turned-marina town
of Elbow. A flooded coulee now serves as a snug harbour,
where the collection of pricey boats and their owners could
be on Catalina Island.
Nothing so transforms a place like water.
Saskatoon is the de facto capital of the Saskatchewan
River Basin. Other cities are graced by the river, but nowhere
else are urbanites so inordinately proud of it. We cross and
recross the river, often many times a day in the “City of
Bridges,” and delight in the elegant view. It is an imposing,
dramatic presence in an otherwise demure landscape. Yet the
river kindly lowers its normally fortress-high banks as it
passes through the city, yielding
an intimacy with the water. We
ride our bicycles along its willow
banks and mark the arrival of
spring by the return of the
pelicans that fish every day in the
eddies below the weir. If you ask
a Saskatonian what she loves
about her city, she will likely say, “The people … and the river.”
The city is home to the closest thing that exists to a river
head office. Headquartered in a squat building near the
Traffic Bridge is Partners FOR the Saskatchewan River
Basin, where I find managing partner Susan Lamb sharing
the lobby with two dozen boisterous schoolkids on a field trip. The kids are there for the same reason I am, perhaps,
to see whether someone is minding the store.
“Nobody told the river there are borders,” says Lamb
from her glass-walled riverbank office. “We must start thinking
of this river as a whole system, not in terms of political
boundaries, if we are going to manage it sustainably.” The
Partners organization tries to do just that, bringing together
government water agencies from the three prairie provinces,
special-interest groups such as Ducks Unlimited Canada and
individual citizens from across the west.
Thinking about the river as a whole system is one thing;
actually managing it that way is still a far-off dream. A jumble
of government agencies, such as the Prairie Provinces
Water Board, wield partial control over the river. Federal,
provincial and municipal governments have spun a tangled
web of legislation and programs to manage the river for a
thousand uses: safe drinking, powerboat racing, industrial
development, bird habitat, to name a few. Add in hundreds
of NGOs or quasi-government advisory groups — like the
basin Partners — and you have more cacophony than
chorus. To be fair, such jurisdictional fragmentation is the main obstacle to sustainable ecosystem management gen -
erally, not just with the South Saskatchewan River. Lake
Winnipeg infamously fell between the government administrative
cracks for 30 years until a band of citizens joined
forces to rescue it (see “Forgotten lake,” Nov/Dec 2006).
|“We are taking a third of the river for irrigation already. There’s no way we can double that.”
Maybe we can someday reach a promised land called
integrated water-resources management in the South
Saskatchewan. Meanwhile, says Lamb, we still have glaring
gaps in our most basic knowledge.
“We know virtually nothing about actual use or consumption
of water,” she says. “No one does.” Her assertion
catches me off guard. Having waded through hundreds of
pages of river studies and reports over the years, I’ve seen
water-consumption figures cited exhaustively, used in graphs,
equations and, that staple of water literature, pie charts.
Consumption figures are even noted in the Partners’ own
2009 state-of-the-basin study, “From the Mountains to the
Sea.” Lamb is a very bright person, but in this instance, she
must somehow be mistaken. Surely our actual water use is
too widely discussed, too vital a statistic here in Palliser
country, to be an unknown.
“Certainly actual use is rarely measured,” confirms Robert
Halliday, author of the Partners’ report, when I go to see him
for clarification. Halliday, former director of Environment
Canada’s National Hydrology Research Centre, says that we
measure river flows at about 2,500 monitoring stations
across the country. The Saskatoon station is not far from
Halliday’s house, just upstream from the weir in a little
brick building. But beyond this thin data-gathering network,
everything is guesswork.
There are nearly 12,000 licensed users of river water and
80 percent of the water allocated under these licences is withdrawn
in Alberta’s sprawling irrigation districts. Users typically
meter their intake pipes, but the standards for reporting
are lax, and withdrawal numbers alone cannot tell us actual
water use. Some water is taken up by growing plants, some
evaporates or is lost from leaking canals, and much simply
flows back to the river. Since none of this is measured,
actual consumption is just an estimate based on assumptions.
Our estimates are accurate only on a large scale. Humans
currently withdraw about 50 percent of the total South
Saskatchewan flow. Actual consumption — withdrawals
minus return flows — is about 33 percent.
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