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‘It was hard enough before’: Manitoba’s drought, worsened by climate crisis, is upending Prairie life | The Narwhal

Tom Johnson saunters from his dust-covered pick-up truck and, with his foot, he nudges the side of an old tractor tire now cemented to the ground in the middle of his pasture — a make-shift trough.

The extreme drought conditions that have beset his cattle ranch near Oak Point, Man., about an hour’s drive northwest of Winnipeg, have forced him to block out what the weeks or months ahead might have in store. Instead, he’s putting his head down and focusing on the new challenges each individual day presents.

“My son Cam found instructions on how to make these on the internet. You know, it didn’t cost us very much at all,” Johnson said. “But you can’t find a water trough in the country anywhere.”

At 63, Johnson should be looking forward to retirement and handing the reins off to his son. Instead, they’re working to reinvent the way they do things on a farm that’s been in their family for nearly a century.

Water in lowlands and ditches has always served his cattle fine, even in dry years, but there is no trace of water to be found there now. So for the first time they had to drill wells — two so far, with plans for a third.

Tom Johnson and his son Cam on their farm in Oak Point, Man. This summer has brought some of the worst drought conditions in Manitoba’s recent history and the Johnsons have struggled to supply adequate water and feed for their cattle. Photo: Aaron Vincent Elkaim / The Narwhal

As the sun sinks in the evening sky, furry white faces begin peeking out from the bushes, and slowly the sleek, rust-brown Hereford cows slink towards the troughs. They pick at what little vegetation is left in the field but the dry ground is unforgiving.

And it’s not the only region experiencing severe disruptions.

   

At the same time flames are engulfing homes and businesses in Lytton, B.C. Canadians are seeking refuge from days of extreme heat at splash pads and beaches across the country. Skies across the continent are clouded with the now-familiar orange haze that signals a nearby wildfire. 

These are the moments that demonstrate the significance of the climate crisis as well as a frightening hint of what lies in the future.

In Manitoba, other — often less-seen — examples illustrate how the threat is coming for Canadian livelihoods, food chains and even secure potable water supplies. It’s a transformation that will likely shift where and how people in this country live in the coming decades.

Cam Johnson, 28, hauls the water tank trailer out to the cattle multiple times a day, filling the tires, waiting for the cows to come and drink, making sure their health isn’t deteriorating.

“It was hard enough before — just farming in general. It was tough to make a living out of it. But then you throw this on top, it’s pretty near impossible,” Cam said.

Normally the cows graze in these fields until the end of September, but in the next week if nothing changes, they’ll have to start buying overpriced feed, which makes this operation unsustainable.

The prospect of having to sell off the herd looms large. But like any good farmer, the senior Johnson rattles off a number of contingency plans to keep as much of the herd intact as possible should the drought continue. Maybe they’ll sell off the calves early, he says, or maybe they’ll just sell down the herd to a smaller number. 

Cattle drink from a trough fashioned from an old tire on the Johnsons farm. The drought caused a shortage of troughs and Cam Johnson learned about this inventive design for his father’s farm online. Photo: Aaron Vincent Elkaim / The Narwhal

While the local auction house is normally closed in the summer, this year it’s open and cows are going at firesale rates. Johnson gestures at the neighbouring farm that shares a fence with him, “Our neighbour right here, his cows are already gone.”

His grandfather started this farm in 1928. Johnson would love to make it to 100 years, but more than that, he wants to be able to hand the farm off to his son and the feasibility of that dream is now in question.

“He’s my baby. He’s the one who wants to keep farming, otherwise I would just throw in the towel and say, ‘That’s enough,’ ” he said over the rumble of his truck as it bumped across the barren field heading for home.

For the first time Tom Johnson has been forced to drill for water on his property. Johnson has so far drilled two water wells on his property to cope with extended drought conditions and has plans for a third. Photo: Aaron Vincent Elkaim / The Narwhal

The Rural Municipality of St. Laurent, where the farm is located, has declared a state of agricultural emergency, as has another interlake community further east. Even in lesser-hit Saskatchewan the Stock Growers Association is calling on federal and provincial government officials to provide support for ranchers. In recent weeks, both the Manitoba and Saskatchewan provincial governments have had to change crop insurance policies to improve support for crop and cattle farmers. The federal government is offering $44 per tonne of feed needed for cattle. 

But for some ranchers, it’s too late, their herds are gone.

For others, the help just won’t be enough to weather the storm. 

A truck kicks up dust as drought conditions plague Manitoba this summer on Friday July 9, 2021. Photo: Aaron Vincent Elkaim / The Narwhal
      

Riding down the road passing through one rural municipality to the next bright red signs at each jurisdictional line declare that a fire ban is in effect. This drought stretches from north of Winnipeg down to the U.S. border.

The Canadian Drought Monitor has classified all of southern Manitoba under varying degrees of drought, with large swaths deemed to be under an exceptional drought — the most severe category.

As a result, Morden — a city of more than 10,000 people an hour and a half southwest of Winnipeg — is staring down the barrel of a drinking water shortage.

In May, the city was forced to issue water-use restrictions prohibiting watering of lawns or filling of pools, and other non-essential activities. At the time, Lake Minnewasta — a man-made lake that is the city’s sole source of water — was about 1.8 metres below full-supply level, the lowest seen since 1983. Now, even with restrictions in place, the lake has fallen to 2.6 metres below the normal level.

“I never knew weather radar was a thing until this. Now every time there’s a hint of rain, I’m watching weather radar,” said Morden Mayor Brandon Burley.

“Every time it sprinkles rain, I go outside in an undershirt and hope for that cinematic moment where the heavens open up. But nope.”

A sign in St. Laurent, Man., asking locals to pray for rain on Saturday, July 10, 2021. Photo: Aaron Vincent Elkaim / The Narwhal

Residents finding reprieve from the heat on the lake’s beach, joke that at least there’s more beach real estate this year, and they tell tales of neighbours getting water trucked into Morden to fill their pools.

Striding through the sand, Burley points about halfway down the beach. “The water’s normally there,” he said.

The drop in water level is especially stark at the lake’s boat launch, where fishers stand below the raised parking lot, in what would normally be the lakebed, to cast off.

Last week, city council met to approve the urgent construction of a half-million-dollar water pipeline that will connect Morden to a neighbouring community’s water supply. But that community too is weathering the drought and has implemented water restrictions. 

Morden mayor Brandon Burley sits for a photo on the shoreline of Lake Minnewasta on July 10, 2021. The lake, which is experiencing critically low levels, is Morden’s sole source of drinking water. Photo: Aaron Vincent Elkaim / The Narwhal
Burley points to a dam that was built to create the artificial Lake Minnewasta that supplies drinking water to 10,000 residents. Photo: Aaron Vincent Elkaim / The Narwhal

Finding shade at a picnic table bordering the lake, Burley explains that this problem, while more dire in the summer because of the water evaporating in the heat, won’t be put to rest until rain comes, which leaves the potential for this to hang over Morden into next year, at which point things could get even more desperate.

“If [the water level] gets about five to six feet lower, then we don’t have the treatment capacity anymore, and that’s what we have to work on contingencies for. At that point, we’d either be trucking water in — which we wouldn’t be able to keep up with the demand — and/or running an overland pipe into the aquifer miles out of town,” Burley said.

It was a problem that city council knew the community could be facing in the future, and money was set aside in next year’s budget to help address the problem, but in the meantime, the fast-growing city has had to slam the brakes on development and expansion plans.

Families play at an expanded beachfront due to unusually low water levels at Colert Beach on Lake Minnewasta. Photo: Aaron Vincent Elkaim / The Narwhal
      

The Prairies have been the site of historic droughts for hundreds of years. “Since the colonization of the Prairies, we’ve been impacted by some pretty dry years like ’37, ’61, ’88, 2001 and so on, but nothing like droughts that occurred prior to the colonization of the Prairies. And they will occur again,” said Dave Sauchyn, the director of the University of Regina’s Prairie Adaptation Research Collaborative.

Sauchyn has used tree rings to illustrate the stories of past droughts in his research, but now climate change is altering the risk profile in the region.

“These droughts occurred in the past because of some natural climate processes, some climate patterns that diverted the water to other parts of North America,” Sauchyn said.

“But they are now occurring in a warming climate where there is more water loss… Our summers are getting longer, our winters are getting shorter. And so there are more days in which we’re losing water each year. And so when we have a combination of a lack of precipitation, and more days of water loss, you can expect that in a warming climate, the droughts have greater impact and severity.”

The Morden community is being asked to reduce water use as much of southern Manitoba is in the grips of extreme drought. Photo: Aaron Vincent Elkaim / The Narwhal

Sauchyn was the lead author of a chapter on the risk profile of the Prairies in a warming climate in a report by Natural Resources Canada. The research team identified drought as the most costly risk to the region. While extreme events like the Fort McMurray wildfire and the Calgary floods are often identified as the most expensive occurrences to date, those only take into consideration insured losses. Whereas in a drought, the socio economic spillover effects — like a farming family losing their herd of cattle — are far more widespread and long lasting and the costs often go untallied. The direct cost to the Canadian agriculture industry in one year of drought between 2001-2002 was estimated to be $2.97 billion, without taking into consideration the multi-year nature of that dry period, or the untallied spillover effects that often last for years.

With more than 80 per cent of Canada’s agricultural lands situated in the Prairies, these changes in climate also have the potential to destabilize food security.

Cam Johnson stands in a normally flooded dugout that provides water to the cattle on his father Tom’s farm. The vast majority of Canada’s agricultural land is located in the Prairies, compounding the impacts of the drought on food security. Photo: Aaron Vincent Elkaim / The Narwhal

The Natural Resources Canada report outlines that adaptation will need to occur to meet these new challenges in the decades to come. But adaptation doesn’t necessarily mean we’ll be able to continue the same activities in a different manner, Sauchyn explains.

“For ranchers, culling the herd is an adaptation, right? Hauling water is an adaptation. Building a water pipeline is an adaptation,” Sauchyn said. “But then the ultimate adaptation is to leave. That’s what happened in the ’30s — a large part of the Prairies was depopulated.”

Ian Mauro, executive director of the University of Winnipeg’s Prairie Climate Centre, says if communities and rural areas fail to find ways to plan for the future that can inspire hope, these changes in climate paint a bleak picture moving forward.

“We’re seeing this climate grief, we’re seeing mental health issues, we’re seeing the future as this dark and scary place. And when you think about the next generation looking at that, and going like, ‘Do we have an opportunity to live a healthy life here?’ If the immediate thought is, ‘No,’ for that next generation, then we’re in a lot of trouble,” Mauro said. 

“Communities will live and die by the ability for young people to visualize and realize that their community could be a place that they could live in over the long term.”

Tom Johnson is doing all he can today to provide that long-term future for his son — the ability to stay in the community and do what he loves. But this one drought calls that all into question, and it’s no surprise why he’s choosing only to focus on the day at hand.

“We’ve got a little bit of grass yet. We’re good for water for a little while. The pasture would come back if we got, you know, three inches of rain. Would sure help.”

But the skies don’t show a prospect of rain. Instead, another heat wave is in the forecast, clouding over that life he’d once imagined.

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