Part 1: Water water everywhere?

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2021 was a banner year for devastating climate change. With BC’s heat dome, plus massive rainfall, and subsequent flooding, heat and water, fires and floods peppered the news.

Twenty-six years ago, Dave Phillips, senior climatologist now with Environment and Climate Change Canada, started compiling a list of Canada’s significant weather events. He said, “There’s no year in the 26 years that could compare to 2021.”

Ontario experienced the worst fire season ever last year; Quebec saw tornadoes of up to 200 km/h. In BC, the catastrophic floods created landslides on unstable mountain slopes, washing out bridges and parts of the Trans-Canada Highway.

Balancing flood concerns comes equally alarming drought. “You’re in a snow drought,” explained Phillips regarding the lack of snowfall here in the Ottawa area.

Drought
“Drought means different things in different contexts. ‘Meteorological drought’ is defined as a period of below-average precipitation. ‘Hydrological drought’ refers to water storages and fluxes falling below long-term averages. Then there’s ‘anthropogenic drought,’ the phenomenon of how most projections of future drought include increases in severity and duration that reflect increasing water demand due to warming.” (bit.ly/3pth6Jm)

Snow drought
Defined as being “a period of abnormally little snowpack for the time of year, snow drought refers to the lack of snowfall and/or scant amounts of snowpack (depth) during winter. Snow drought creates preconditions for summer droughts.

Runoff from melting snow traditionally has provided human beings and ecosystems with important sources of dependable water. Therefore, snow drought is problematic, because groundwater is not replenished, and surface and sub-surface runoff is reduced.

2022 snowfall
In a January interview, Phillips noted that Ottawa gets roughly 223 cm of snow between October and April – but that by early January 2022, Ottawa only received 42 cm.

By my calculations, as of March 1, 2022, Ottawa has received 153.7 cm (using data from bit.ly/3hAavYY).

Implications
The issue is the amount of water that soil – as well as groundwater reservoirs – either do or don’t receive from snow cover.
Will cash croppers, livestock farmers, Certified Organic Farm operators – and/or gardeners like me – receive enough water, this year, to sustain productive yields of what we’re trying to grow?

We don’t know yet, but Phillips and others caution that we may experience drought this summer.

Parched soils translate to danger of wildfires, dependency upon reliable irrigation – and dry wells. Increasingly, Pontiac homeowners complain of shallow wells going dry, where many residents have hired well diggers to drill wells that must penetrate further and further underground to reach the aquifer.
COVID has emphasized that rural living has advantages, so developers are transforming so called “wasteland” into housing developments with the blessings of municipalities requiring a larger tax base. I wonder: how secure is our rural water supply considering that current taxpayers’ wells are running dry?

Meanwhile: drainage tiles
Anyone who has a house plant knows that overwatering kills plants. Farmers know this – and many have used subsidies allowing them to insert drainage tiles into their fields. The network of underground pipes is
specifically designed to remove excess water from their land, so that machinery won’t get bogged in,
from planting through to harvesting season.

Implications
Tiles dump the excess water into municipal ditches or existing stream beds, where it is “drained away”, sometimes swelling ditches, damaging infrastructure including roads, fence lines and, in the case of water being dumped into watercourses, it may flood properties downstream.

Pollution and algae bloom
Agricultural runoff has implications, too, where residues of fertilizer, herbicide, and pesticide infiltrate ground and surface water, causing these chemicals to accumulate in wetlands, rivers, and lakes.
One result of excess nitrates and phosphorous found in fertilizers? Algae blooms. “Those blooms
rob the water of oxygen and can suffocate and harm aquatic life.” (bit.ly/3hwR1ED)

Next week: Part 2: Water: a valuable resource

Katharine Fletcher is a freelance writer, author, and visual artist.
Contact her at fletcher.katharine@gmail.com and view her art at facebook.com/Katharine
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