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When The Well Runs Dry

author: Paul Dalby

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“Thousands have lived without love, not one without water.” W. H. AUDEN

LAST SUMMER’S DROUGHT WAS HARD TO IGNORE. Rain barrels waited in vain for rain to splash down from eavestroughs, crops withered in the fields, leaves shrivelled in the forests, creek levels dropped and municipalities passed bylaws that limited household water use. And that was just the obvious.

Below the ground, our water table dropped. The rain that usually seeps into the earth through layers of sand, gravel and soil to become our groundwater, didn’t materialize.

The rain that replenishes the local streams, rivers and lakes with what is referred to as surface runoff, simply didn’t show up.

Response teams from the local conservation authorities watched as water slipped from Level 1 (cause for closer monitoring) to Level 3 (a failure of the water supply to meet demand). The alarm bells of a Level 3 drought – the first for many municipalities in Quinte, Northumberland and Prince Edward County – gave a clear indication that 2016 was not business as usual with our water resource.

As we experience more unsettled weather patterns, climatologists, scientists and governments now agree that the new norm is anybody’s guess.

FALSE SECURITY

Surrounded as we are by water, many of us are lulled into a false sense of security. With over one million lakes, including part ownership of the Great Lakes, and massive ice fields, Canada is home to nearly a tenth of the world’s supply of fresh water. But our cavalier attitude towards our water resources is beginning to change. Extreme weather fluctuations are forcing people to wake up.

For the last nine years, the Royal Bank of Canada has conducted the “RBC Canadian Water Attitudes Study”, with the goal “to drive meaningful conversations about the value and vulnerability of water in Canada.” The most recent 2016 RBC opinion poll revealed that for the first time Canadians ranked climate change as the biggest threat to our freshwater supply.

“This past summer was one of the driest Ontario summers we have witnessed…,” said Robert Sandford, one of the co-authors of the RBC study and considered an authority on the commodity that is now ranked as Canada’s most important natural resource. He believes droughts don’t attract the same attention as floods because “there is no dramatic start or end to them”.

Sandford cautions that drought is becoming a very significant factor in our lives.

“In my life I have never seen this before. The variability in our weather is so extreme and unpredictable, it’s hard to guess what will happen next,” he said. A day after our interview, the weather transformed in just 24 hours from a bone-chilling winter ice storm to a balmy spring day (no jackets required): a temperature leap of 23°C.

DOWN ON THE FARM

This sense of uncertainty pervades down on the farm. Every morning as dawn breaks, Peter Doris steps out of the century farmhouse on the north shore of Rice Lake where he has lived since he was an infant and walks gingerly across ice-crusted fields to check on his 40 head of beef cattle. These days Doris pays more attention to the sky overhead than the fields below.

Like all the other farmers who are his neighbours, Doris is praying for precipitation, whether it’s snow, sleet or rain, anything that will replenish the water table before summer arrives. On average, his small beef herd drinks anywhere between 1,000 and 2,000 litres of water a day.

“If we have another dry year in 2017, I would say some people will have to make some very difficult decisions about the size of their herds,” said Doris.

Shelley Aggett echoes the same concerns. By comparison, the 15 horses in her stable drink between 400 to 800 litres a day. The hotter the weather and the more they work, the higher the consumption. Shelley, who runs S. and R. Stables with her father Russ Anderson on a hillside overlooking Healey Falls just north of Campbellford, faced an uphill battle to keep her riding school’s 15 horses watered after last summer’s drought parched both the stables’ well and her farm’s pond.

“Some days we struggled to get six pails of water out of the well to water the horses in the barn,” she said.

Her father Russ solved the dilemma by hauling in huge barrels of town water purchased with a bulk water permit from Trent Hills so the horses could wet their whistle. But the father-daughter team doubts they could sustain this effort or the cost through a second drought summer.

“It’s pretty scary. For the first time in my life, our pond dried up,” Shelley said. “We could try drilling a deeper well, but I imagine today it could cost as much as $10,000.”

It wasn’t just the water shortage that hurt them. Like many other farmers, Shelley could only watch helplessly as the drought killed off most of the region’s second and third cut of hay. Bales had to be shipped in from as far away as Quebec and the price tag was high – a normal $40 bale suddenly cost $90. And bags of feed from the local supplier also shot up by 10 per cent.

“If we have another year like this with the lack of rain and crops suffering, people are going under. We’ve heard of people having to re-mortgage their farms to keep them afloat,” she said.

TAKING A BIG HIT

Picton farmer Lloyd Crowe says last year’s drought cost him and his farming partner Larry Reynolds over $1 million in lost crop yields.

“There’s so little you can do to replace rain,” said Crowe, a 10th-generation farmer whose ancestors settled his Picton land in 1801. He still lives in their original homestead.

“But we always take the highest crop insurance we can get and last year that certainly helped pay some of the bills even though it didn’t cover our entire losses,” he said. “Some farmers take a chance skipping insurance but that’s foolish.”

Like so many farmers in this region, Crowe and Reynolds didn’t really see the drought coming until it was too late. “Everything was looking good in the spring and we got a good early start in the fields. Best spring ever,” he said. “Then it just got hotter and hotter.”

It wasn’t long ago that the two men took top honours from the Grain Farmers of Ontario for their record-breaking yield of winter wheat. But last year Lloyd Crowe says their 6,000-acre, Reynolds Farm “was cooked”.

“We’ve had droughts before but this one was historical. Wells went dry that had never done so before,” Crowe said. Every Sunday he went to church and asked the pastor to offer up a special prayer for rain. “I was ready to try anything, we were so desperate but I guess the Lord just forgot to send us any rain,” Crowe said.

WEATHERMAN STUMPED

Last summer’s weather patterns even stumped the man who has become famous across the country for usually getting the weather right: David Phillips, the senior climatologist at Environment Canada. “Our whole society is based on normal weather, but when you get those wild swings, the seasons seem out of whack, like a wild card in the weather deck,” said Phillips.

“Last year in many places we had more hot days in one summer than in the previous three years combined. There were five months with above normal temps, but we rarely talked about drought conditions,” Phillips observed. “I guess it was great beer drinking weather.”

Phillips’s wry humour masks his vast experience and knowledge of the Canadian climate, a feat of crystal ball gazing that has earned him widespread respect and the Order of Canada. But even he admits it’s getting more difficult to call the weather. “Trying to predict what this summer will be like is a real stab in the dark,” he says.

THE NEW NORMAL

Droughts had always been something of a rarity in eastern Ontario, usually occurring on a 15-year cycle. The summer of 2016 took almost everyone off-guard, as it dried up wells, turned ponds into wrinkled ditches, and transformed hay fields into lifeless brown crisp.

And it wasn’t only the farmers and growers who were caught on their back foot. Government ministries at municipal, provincial and federal levels – all with a stake in our priceless water resources – were slow to react.

Christine McClure, water resource manager for Quinte Conservation, one of 36 conservation authorities in Ontario that, among other responsibilities, act as our water watchers, says, “The province and many municipalities were not aware of the full extent of the drought and the number of people and businesses that were impacted.” It sounds simple, but according to McClure, “For a drought to be taken seriously at higher levels of government, people need to report their own situations to government agencies.”

GRASSROOTS AWARENESS

Back in Northumberland County, Peter Doris’s daily obsession with precipitation levels extends beyond his own neighbours’ welfare. He also wears a second hat – as an environmental specialist based in Brighton working for OMAFRA (Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Food and Ministry of Rural Affairs). Last summer, a new federal-provincial initiative was launched at his farm near Keene. Using advanced technology that is now available to the agricultural community, the program collects new data that is used to develop accurate soil maps that will help farmers adjust their farm management practices and help the province develop initiatives to support climate change mitigation and efforts to protect natural water resources.

Part of Doris’s job with OMAFRA is to prepare the region’s agriculture industry and other major water users for the possibility of future droughts.

With help from the Ontario Environment Ministry and local conservation authorities, Doris organized two area workshops that concentrated on our water resources. Farmers sat shoulder-to-shoulder with vineyard owners, market gardeners and golf course operators. Experts speaking at the agricultural water workshops preached the gospel of being prepared for another drought. Advice was given on digging ponds, sinking new wells, managing and conserving water, and echoing the words of Lloyd Crowe, buying crop insurance.

While the workshops provided answers to problems at hand, they also generated an interest in the future – water conservation – signaling the fact that the agricultural community and communities at large are looking beyond a single season of drought to the more complex problems of climate change and how it could potentially affect water resources and their livelihoods.

Prince Edward County winery owner Chris Morandin candidly admitted he came to one of the workshops “as a sponge” soaking up ideas. “If there’s anything I can learn about the water table and the watershed in the area, that’s great,” said Morandin, who hopes to market his first wine next year after seven years of intensive vine culture. His grapes survived the 2016 heat wave but the crop yield was sharply down. “At the moment we have a cistern to bring the water in for the winery but I do plan to drill a well this spring,” he said.

“I’ve heard more than once, people say they turn on the tap, water comes out and they don’t think a whole lot more about it,” Doris said. “For many people, the well is a black box and they don’t know much about what goes on down there,” he said. Until, of course, the water stops running.

“We really need people to sit down and think hard about water planning on their property.” And many rural homeowners have no choice but to consider water conservation. For lots of farmers and rural householders, the cost of replacing a dug well with a drilled well could run into tens of thousands of dollars and is simply not an option. Not to mention that local well drilling companies are booked solid.

As is so often the case, it’s easy to ignore a problem until it stares you directly in the face. And water issues seem to be staring people and governments at all levels in the face right now.

A NATIONAL WATER STRATEGY

The federal government’s water policy is now 30 years old and hasn’t kept up with industrial farming, the bottled water industry, mining operations, power generation, and careless water-intensive consumer lifestyles, all of which seriously threaten what we once considered a limitless resource. Nor has it dealt with the increased pressure of the opportunists who are eyeing the sale of water to other countries.

“Fifteen years ago there was no huge public discussion about water. Now there is a groundswell of support across the country for a reasonable, consistent water strategy,” said Rick Ross, Executive Director of the Canadian Water Resource Agency (CWRA).

At the national level, The Council for Canadians is pushing hard for “a single set of principles for every province and territory, allocating seed money to build up a detailed picture of our water resource to conserve and preserve it for future generations.”

At the provincial level, Premier Wynne’s liberals are being pressed to consider stronger laws that govern the bottled water industry, which when viewed as a percentage of water taken by the nation as a whole is relatively insignificant, but when placed on the back of an individual municipality is a backbreaker. The names in the news in 2016 were Nestlé and Aberfoyle, but the water that lies unseen below the surface of the ground in our local watershed region is being eyed by multinational companies. Nervous? Just a bit.

For the first time in our history, Canadians are looking at our water as a precious resource and one that needs protection from sea to sea.

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david newland

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contributor 3Jeff has been in and around the food world for over 18 years He’s passionate about food – where it comes from and who makes it....