June 16th, 2024

Major reservoirs filling but still below 2023

By Medicine Hat News on May 31, 2024.

Members of the Medicine Hat Fire Service took advantage of higher river levels this week to engage in swift water rescue training exercises beneath the CPKC train bridge over the South Saskatchewan River on Thursday. Tethered firefighters took turns retrieving colleagues in float suits.--News Photo Collin Gallant


Most of southern Alberta’s largest reservoirs are approaching three-quarters full after rain in May replenished levels left low during a dry winter with minimal runoff, Alberta Environment reports.

That’s still below levels last year however, according to irrigation districts that haven’t adjusted allocations that were set lower this year ahead of expected drought and water sharing agreements.

A note to members of the largest, St. Mary’s River Irrigation District between Lethbridge and Medicine Hat, on Wednesday stated that combined storage in the headworks and district is at 61 per cent of total capacity.

That is nearly 480,000 acre-feet of water, but 130,000 less than at this time last year, with little expected from runoff from a below average snow pillow in the Rockies.

“We are still on course for a below average water allocation for the 2024 irrigation season,” reads the message from SMRID general manager David Westwood. “Despite recent precipitation events, water allocation, at this time, remains at eight inches at the farm gate for the 2024 irrigation season.”

Medicine Hat had received 118 mm of rain in May, as of Thursday morning, making it on of the top five wettest months of May in 120 years.

According to Alberta Agriculture’s weekly soil moisture update, released Thursday, the near region to the Hat and areas around Taber are experiencing a once-in-50-year spring in terms of precipitation.

The notoriously dry Special Areas received 80 mm of rain in May, and areas of Cypress County range from “moderately” to “extremely” wet.

“Soil moisture reserves are recovering across most of the province with large parts of the Southern Region and parts of the Special Areas now trending to above normal for this time of year,” the report reads.

“So far 2024 has marked a dramatic turnaround in drought conditions across most of the province. In addition, the wet season still lies head of us and there is ample opportunity to receive further moisture if the current weather patterns hold.”

Most irrigation districts announced a 50 per cent reduction in allocation to start the year, including the St. Mary, Raymond, Magrath, United and Lethbridge Northern districts, which also entered into voluntary water sharing agreements hammered out by Alberta Environment Ministry.

The Bow River Irrigation District, surrounding Vauxhall, had considered reducing maximum allocation in half, to 12 inches, but has since set it at 16 inches.

An acre-foot is equal to 12 million litres, or 1,200 cubic metres, enough to cover one acre of land in water one foot deep.

Of the four basins where agreements were made, the South Saskatchewan-Oldman and “Southern Tributaries” have activated the agreement, though the Bow and Red Deer Basins have not.

The EID remained at Stage 3 of its four-step drought management plan this week.

Currently, the largest reservoir on the Bow River system, Lake Newell managed by the Eastern Irrigation District, is at 97 per cent of its capacity at May 29.

Much larger bodies of water further south, managed by the government of Alberta on the St. Mary’s River Irrigation system and others, were similarly filled during a wetter than typical spring.

The Oldman Reservoir, (71 per cent), the St. Mary Reservoir (73 per cent) and Lake McGregor (95 per cent).

In the case of the Oldman Reservoir, the current level is more than double the 32 per cent level recorded in early April, and much higher than last fall when a picture of sandbars in the huge expanse caused worry in the general public.

But, City of Lethbridge officials said that is not enough to ease the potential to bring in significant water saving regulations this summer.

“At this time, we are not enacting the Water Rationing Action Plan,” the City of Lethbridge’s engineering and environment manager, Mark Svenson, told the media this week. “We thank the community for continuing voluntary conservations measures. We are monitoring the situation and will respond with mandatory measures if needed.”

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