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March 26, 2019

Palliser versus Macoun – who was right?

Prairie water history is an important lesson to learn from

In an episode from the season twelve run of the epic television western Gunsmoke, Marshal Matt Dillon is caught in the middle of a brouhaha over water.  A lack of water – actually.  Citizens of Dodge City and surrounding area are dealing with severe drought and all the water wells dry up except one. 

Mark Twain purportedly said, though authorship is unconfirmed, that "whiskey is for drinking and water is for fighting”.  Tensions over water were common themes for both radio and television westerns like Hop-along Cassidy, the Six Shooter and Bonanza, each exploring the "you got water and I don’t” scenario.

In real life it is a scary thought that a water well, dugout or stream could dry up.

Alberta Environment and Parks River Basinprognosticators recently issued a high runoff advisory as double-digit daytime temperatures with slightly below freezing nighttime temperatures trigger significant snow melt. 

How much melt depends largely on the amount of snow in a given region.  There is 55 percent of the snow in the Red Deer river basin compared to last year.  There is 112 percent in the North Saskatchewan basin compared with 2018.  75 percent of reservoir water comes from snow melt.

What a difference a year, decade or millennium can make.  What a difference a couple of spring snowfall events can have or no big spring snows at all. What a difference between one or two June monsoons or those high-water events going MIA. 

Nothing tells climate history better than the growth rings of a tree.  Study each ring and science chronicles each year in amazing detail. Dry, normal or wet.  When it was any of the three – early, mid or late.

The study of tree rings is called dendrochronology.  Work by the Prairie Adaptation Research Collaborative is using the tree ring past to trace out the future.

Each tree ring reveals how much water was in the soil each corresponding year.  Analyzing trees that are hundreds of years old provides patterns linked to climate cycles.

Collaborative Senior Research Scientist Dr. Dave Sauchyn says, in the CBC report Regina researchers use tree rings to explain past, predict future, "We find droughts that are 10, 15, 20 years long in the tree rings and there is no reason they can’t reoccur.”

How do we prepare?

One, protect riparian areas, allowing them to be the sponge-like, water storage places they naturally are.

Second, optimize constructed storage, whether it be dugouts, constructed wetlands or earthen dams. 

Third, practice conservation in small and large ways, treating water whether by the drop or the bucket full as precious.

Fourth, protect upland areas as a connection to lowland places. Forested slopes, grassed waterways, deep-rooted perennials, buffering berms all slow water, permitting absorption.

Fifth, manage land and water for the long term more than the short term.  Taking shortcuts by over pumping a well, not maintaining a water distribution system, depleting a dugout, overstocking a pasture is risky business.

Fact is, where we live has always been in flux.  Here’s what says about the Prairies. 

"In 1857 John Palliser looked over the Canadian plains and saw a desert. Through the 1870s John Macoun looked over the same landscape and saw Eden.

What accounts for the difference in perception? The answer in large part lies with the type of weather each encountered. Macoun was lucky to be able to observe the prairies when it was experiencing the wettest decade in the nineteenth century. Palliser studied the landscape under normal-to-dry conditions.”

Who was right?  Both Palliser and Macoun.  History is a great teacher if we listen and learn from it. 



Coming Events

DEADLINE fast approaching for the 2019 conifer seedling program – In partnership with West Fraser, white spruce and lodgepole pine tree seedlings are available for purchase/ planting in Clearwater County.  Order by April 19, 2019. Applications are first come first served. Email Danielle
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