Drought and Flood Cycles

As I sit writing this a flurry of activity is happening outside; it is snowing again. It seems an odd time to consider drought and flood cycles, but that is exactly what planners and hydrologist are doing. One of the key factors that plays into flood and drought forecasting is snowpack. If there is a large snowpack combined with heavy spring rains this might lead to flooding. Large snowpack and heavy rains were two of the factors that aggravated Alberta’s 2013 flood, or the “flood of floods”. On the other hand, winters where there is very little precipitation, such as last year, may produce dry conditions that could become a drought. There are also broader climate trends that play into forecasting flood and drought. Tree ring research in the Rocky Mountains has revealed climate cycles of drier and wetter periods lasting approximately 20 years and resulting from the circulation of the Pacific Ocean [1].

Flood and drought sit at opposite ends of the natural water quantity spectrum. Drought is characterized by extended periods of below average precipitation. However, small amounts of precipitation do not in itself lead to drought. High temperatures and winds increase evaporation and exacerbate dry conditions intensifying drought. It is difficult to decisively pinpoint the beginning of drought as impacts can be delayed, but there are signs, including low moisture levels in soil, less surface water, and limited plant growth. Floods on the other hand are more obvious as they cause immediate, observable damage. Floods are overflows of water that submerge land that is normally dry. Less severe drought and flood events are more manageable for mitigating impacts, but when flooding goes beyond the limits of infrastructure capacity, or droughts go beyond the coping range of ecosystems and water users then damages are likely and costly.

The flood that hit southern Alberta in 2013 prompted the evacuation of 100,000 people, the largest Canadian evacuation in 60 years[2]! The flood was also the most expensive natural disaster in Canadian history, costing over $6 billion, including $2 billion in insured losses from damage to homes and automobiles[2]. In comparison, last year’s wildfires in Fort McMurray caused the evacuation of 80,000 people and cost over $3.5 billion - largely insured[3]. Damages from drought are also expensive especially in multi-year episodes. Impacts from drought include decreased hydroelectric potential, crop loss and damage to soil, stress to fisheries, etc. In the 2009-2010 drought that affected the Palliser’s Triangle region of southern Alberta precipitation was the smallest recorded in the previous 50 years and a state of emergency was declared in ten counties[4]!

Kiwanis River Park (2005)

Drought and flood can also be costly for natural systems. However, in southern Alberta the mixed grasslands region that we live in is adapted to the cycle of drought and flood. Many plant species that are dominant in the grasslands, such as needle and thread grass (Heterostipa comate) and blue grama grass (Bouteloua gracilis), are drought resistant and while our lawns wither during hot, dry summer conditions native grasses carry on. Flooding helps to reinvigorate river gravel beds by removing sediment, which benefits spawning grounds for fish, such as bull trout, and westslope cutthroat trout. When gravel beds have less sediment there is a better chance for trout to survive, hatch, and find their way out of the gravel bed and into the river. Floods create channels from fast moving water that create deep pools where trout can over winter. The aftermath of flooding can also have positive impacts for riparian areas, which are fertilized by the sediment that is left behind as waters recede. Prairie rivers such as the South Saskatchewan River shift massive amounts of fluvial/alluvial materials when they flood. Police Point Park regularly floods and the lower parts of the park have seen literally meters of deposit. The South Saskatchewan River, like the Red Deer River, North Saskatchewan River, and Old Man River, are wandering rivers where old channels and oxbows are common.

Floods and drought can be disruptive and expensive for us humans, but we can learn something from the plants and fish that find opportunity in disaster and that is just what some city planners are doing! Ruimte voor de Rivier, or room for the river is a Dutch concept that encourages building farther away from rivers and naturalizing riparian areas to better manage high water levels. Bolder, Colorado and the Netherlands have both implemented aggressive plans to leave room for the river after expensive floods. The Government of Alberta through the “Stepping Back from the Water” publication has developed beneficial management practices for building close to water by preserving riparian areas. Furthermore, the Watershed Resiliency and Restoration Program is a provincial grant program that provides funds for projects that focus on “the creation and/or enhancement of natural systems such as wetlands and riparian areas to improve watershed functioning” to mitigate environmental, social and economic impacts of severe natural events[5].

Flood and drought cycles that have defined the mixed grasslands of southern Alberta are here to stay. As the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events continues to increase, planning efforts that make room for the river and integrate infrastructure solutions with natural processes for mitigating drought and flood need to continue to be expanded.

For more information on: Alberta River Basins and Flood Hazard Studies

You're Invited!

SEAWA would like to invite you to our free Rural Educational Forum about Environmental Stewardship on the Farm! The day will be filled with exciting talks and a panel of producers and ranchers that have implemented best management practices on their farms!

Medicine Hat Lodge
1051 Ross Glen Drive
Medicine Hat, AB

March 10, 2017
8:00am - 3:00pm
For more information and to register


The Non-Profit Energy Efficiency Transition (NEET) Program will provide funding to help non-profit and volunteer groups determine how efficient their current lighting, heating, cooling and hot water systems are. Equipped with audit information, agencies can then take advantage of Energy Efficiency Alberta’s Business, Non-Profit and Institutional Rebate Program, which offers incentives for the purchase and installation of high-efficiency products.

For more information!


"Kidneys of the Landscape"
"Biodiversity Supermarket"
"Nature's Shock Absorbers"

Wetlands, commonly called sloughs, do a lot of work that benefit people and the environment! However, in the past wetlands were misunderstood and were considered nuisance lands, or wastelands, a perception that resulted in their systematic drainage and infilling to facilitate development. About two-thirds of wetlands in Alberta's settled areas have been lost.  

What do wetlands do? They protect water quality by trapping contaminants, help attenuate flood by storing water, depending on their location on the landscape they recharge shallow groundwater, provide habitat (fish, waterfowl, plants and other wildlife), provide hay or browse during drought periods, sustain biodiversity, and numerous other natural processes. They have aesthetic, recreational and cultural values to various peoples and communities.
Cattails in a marsh (Photo Credit: Marilou Montemayor)
The importance of wetlands, and their protection and conservation was formally recognized by an international treaty, at the Ramsar (Iran) convention in 1971 ( World Wetlands Day is celebrated every 2nd of February.

Alberta is home to five classes of wetlands – bogs, fens, swamps, marshes, and shallow open water. Wetlands cover about 20% of the land base in Alberta. Bogs and fens, collectively called peatlands, account for 90% of provincial wetlands. Peatlands are extensively found in the Boreal, and to a lesser extent in the Foothills natural region. Amazing photos of northern Alberta peatlands can be found in this article.

In the SEAWA watershed, marshes and shallow open water are commonly found, and can either be saline or freshwater depending on the underlying substrate. Common wetland plants are bulrushes, cattails, manna grass, giant bur reeds, sedges, and willows. Saline shallow open water may be surrounded by red samphire. There are also wetlands along the shores of slow-moving streams or rivers, as well as on lake shorelines. They are called fringe or shoreline wetlands.
Bulrushes in a shoreline wetland (Photo Credit: Marilou Montemayor)
Red samphire surrounds a saline wetland (Photo Credit: Marilou Montemayor)

Let's Celebrate Water!

There are two important world water celebrations coming up in February and March! How are you going to celebrate? By learning more about wetlands and water? By acting to protect your local wetlands? By sharing with a friend?

February 2, 2017 is World Wetlands Day
March 22, 2017 is World Water Day. This year's theme is waste water! SEAWA together with the newly formed Medicine Hat Chapter of Council of Canadians are planning a week of exciting events to mark Canada Water Week. Starting on Tuesday March 21 and running to Saturday March 25 at the Medicine Hat Library and Medicine Hat College. Other participants include Grasslands Naturalists, City of Medicine Hat, the Libraries of the Shortgrass Library System, and some enthusiastic teachers and students. If you are interested in helping out please give us a shout at 403-580-8980 or

Keep an eye on the SEAWA website's Get Involved page for more upcoming information!

What have we been up to?

On Friday December 2, 2016 the streets of downtown Medicine Hat were bustling with shoppers and merry makers late into the night! Why it was Midnight Madness and SEAWA was there to ask people what they wished for the South Saskatchewan River watershed in 2017!

People wished for:

Swimable lakes and rivers
Ponds and lakes not to be sprayed for mosquitoes
Others to use less water
Excellent bird and fish life sanctuaries
Water balance between users
Praxis hosted a day of hands-on science activities and science fair preparation for home school students in December! SEAWA was there to help teach about watersheds and how to protect water from different forms of contamination.

Light up Dark Nights with an Ice Lantern!

Because water freezes from the outside in, the water pocket left in the middle of a freezing bucket of water is the perfect nook for a candle to cast some light on long winter nights.

To make a lantern you will need a bucket filled with water, a candle, a nail and hammer, and freezing outdoor temperatures.

1) Place the bucket of water outside for around 24 hours. Check on the bucket to make sure there is still water in the middle by gently shaking the bucket side to side.

2) Once thick ice walls have formed flip the bucket upside down to remove your ice lantern. Hammer the nail into the center water cavity and drain the water out. 

3) Chip a hole in the top of the lantern that is large enough to fit in the candle using the hammer and nail.

4) Light the candle and carefully drop it into the hole.

5) Warmly welcome visitors to your home.

Tip: If cracks form in your lantern while chipping out the hole, spray the lantern with water and wait for it to freeze before carving space for the candle.

Upcoming Events

54th Annual Alberta Soil Science Workshop 

What is Soil Health? Concepts to Application
February 15-17, 2017
Lethbridge, AB

For more information and to register

Riparian Restoration and Management: Strategies and Success Stories 

February 15, 2017
Airdrie Agriculture Centre
Airdrie, AB
10:00 - 3:00
For more information and to register

Climb for Wilderness

April 22, 2017
Calgary, AB

The Climb for Wilderness provides learning opportunities and the challenges to climb all 1188 stairs of the Bow Building to raise funds for Alberta Wilderness Association.
For more information


Have Your Say

Do you have a story that you would like to share with SEAWA and our newsletter readership? Please consider writing to us about your experiences, initiatives, or a topic that you think people need to know about. We would be happy to feature your 250-300 word story and pictures in our newsletter!


SEAWA is always looking for people to help with our activities and events!

If you are interested in gaining experience with a not-for-profit organization, or just having fun hanging out with cool people, let us know!

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