Thursday November 27, 2014

Floods show something is changing


The problem with having a reasonable discussion about the strange happenings around us is it invariably gets bogged down in a fight over the words we use to describe it.

You know the words that bog down the conversation: Global Warming. Climate change. Or as some insist, good, old-fashion weather that tends to come and ago.

But even if you are the latter camp convinced what is happening is rather natural, the weather events of the last four years seem to telling us something has changed from the days of bone-dry summers.

Anyone remember then Progressive Conservative premier Grant Devine telling federal environmentalists a quarter century ago that the Moose Mountain Creek could be stopped with a suitcase? Or do you recall then-NDP MLA Dwain Lingenfelter telling us he’d be able to walk across the Rafferty Dam reservoir because it would never fill.

Well, it was based on the common Saskatchewan wisdom that after spring runoff comes summer drought. But that’s clearly not happening in recent years.

Ask the people of Melville or Yorkton or Moosomin or Wolseley or any of the dozens of communities declaring a state of emergency. Ask the residents of Yorkton, Maple Creek, Weyburn, Estevan or Roche Percee after the 2010 and 2011 flooding. For that matter, ask the people in bigger prairie cities like Calgary, Winnipeg or Brandon and they will tell you that flooding in early July is surely something different.

Or better yet, ask a scientist who has been studying matters.

Hydrologist John Pomeroy — Canadian Research Chair for Water Resources and Climate Change at the University of Saskatchewan — doesn’t exactly seem like some wild-eyed environmentalist insisting that the sky is falling. But his extensive study of drainage basin of the Smith Creek that flows near Langenburg is telling him something has change. “We have to stop what we are doing,” Pomeroy said in a recent interview. “Things are happening and they are happening much faster than anyone imagined.”

One of “things happening” is the increased frequency of three-day rain events like the most recent one in eastern Saskatchewan.

“There were farms (last week) getting flooded that have never been flooded since they were homesteaded,” he said.

Interesting, Pomeroy said there has been no increase in one-day rain storms in the last century, but what has change is multiple-day rain events. And he points to studies at Yale University saying it’s become a warmer arctic is causing the jet streams to go further south and trap in weather systems from the southern U.S. that linger for days and dump great amounts of rain on us.

Global warming? Maybe not here, but the same jet streams causing our recent longer, colder winters are responsible for these rains — all part of the complex notion of climate change, Pomeroy said.

“It’s really hard to take a single event and attribute it climate change,” he said. “But this (flood) screams of climate change.”

However, Pomeroy is the first to acknowledge a lot of other circumstances have come into play.

The first and foremost is our flat topography decided by melting glaciers 10,000 to 30,000 years ago. More than 85 of our runoff does not make it to rivers, instead soaking in the ground or draining in the sloughs.

But with agricultural encroachment, we have fewer sloughs than we used to, Pomeroy said. In the Smith Creek basin there are now less than half the wetlands (43 square kilometres) than there was in 1958 (98 square kilometres).

Add this human contribution that has reduced our natural water runoff to the ancient problems of our topography and the arguably newfound problems of the more violent rain events and we are left with a big problem.

And no matter what name you use for it, it’s a problem we obviously have to start taking seriously.

Murray Mandryk has been covering provincial politics for over 22 years.



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