By Cal Braid
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
The second week of January swept in a polar vortex that was a shock to the system. While it may have brought with it an onset of shudders and shivers, it also laid down a much-needed blanket of snow.
Back on Dec. 21, the St. Mary River Irrigation District (SMRID) released an update on X informing irrigators about the water supply and snow pillow levels in the mountains surrounding the region.
George Lohues, board of directors for SMRID, told irrigators that the board would be meeting with Alberta Environment and Protected Areas this month to initiate planning for potential drought conditions during the upcoming 2024 irrigation season.
He said, “The success of our irrigation season hinges on above-average winter snowpack in the Rocky Mountains and timely rains in the spring and summer of 2024 to replenish our current low water supply levels.”
Perhaps most importantly, he said, “To ensure that all irrigators within the SMRID are adequately prepared, we strongly advise each member to commence planning their crops considering the possibility of not receiving a full allocation of water per acre for the 2024 irrigation season.”
Lohues said that the water supply level and current storage levels in the district’s reservoirs was at 136,000 acre-feet, or 43 per cent of the full supply limit (FSL) of irrigation storage volume as of Dec. 18, 2023. The total of all of the storage in the St. Mary Project reservoirs was 31 per cent of FSL at that point.
In June 2023, the combined irrigation storage for the headworks reservoirs was between the upper and lower quartiles for historical storage levels. The water supply then sharply declined to meet irrigation demand and as a result of spring heat and lack of rainfall.
Lohues said SMRID “targets its winter storage levels at a lower amount than FSL to accommodate spring run off and precipitation events. We are currently at 42 per cent of our combined headworks and District reservoirs winter storage target levels.” The combined totals account for the St. Mary, Waterton, and Milk River Ridge reservoirs.
In his release posted on X, Lohues included snow pillow graphs that mapped a dry year (2000-2001) against the years 2022-2024. The graphs showed the snow pillow from Akamina, Flat Top and Many Glacier. Those mountains feed the headwaters of the St. Mary, Waterton and Belly Rivers. All of them showed drastic drops in May and June of 2023. The pillow on Flat Top is normally our system’s largest snow water equivalent contributor.
“Despite early season snowfall contributing to average levels across all three snow pillows at the end of November, unseasonably warm temperatures in December have caused a reduction in the snowpack. The runoff from this decline is being captured in the St. Mary and Waterton reservoirs.”
Lohues noted that the majority of the snowfall usually occurs between February and April and said, “We have yet to receive our meaningful snowfall.”
The SMRID will be closely monitoring the snowpack and precipitation levels over the next four months and will release updated developments on the following dates: Jan. 19, Feb. 15, March 15, April 3.
Lohues closed his newsletter by saying, “As irrigation farmers in southern Alberta, we are aware of the extreme variability of our weather. We can look back to 2001/2002 to remember how the drought and low water supplies that were very similar to what we are looking at today, were wiped out with one heavy rainfall event in June of 2002. Let’s hope for something similar in 2024. It is far too early to predict what the water allocation will be as the meaningful snow falls in February, March and April. As the irrigation season draws nearer, we will be using data provided by Alberta Agriculture and Irrigation, as we always do, to come up with the initial allocation. As farmers we cannot control the weather, yet we are confident that our farmers are innovative and adaptable and will find a way to grow a successful crop in 2024.”
More updates pending.