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Heavy smoke from northern Alberta forest fires comes south to blanket the Bow River area in downtown Calgary, on May 16.Larry MacDougal/The Canadian Press

When scientist David Sauchyn first focused his research on climate change adaptation in Western Canada more than two decades ago, he often received pushback in the form of a question: Why don’t we just stop climate change, rather than adapting?

Since then, of course, our fossil-fuel society has continued to consume in ever-increasing amounts. With the understanding now that some massive global shifts have been set in motion, figuring out how to adapt has become a larger, more accepted part of the climate discussion.

“We’re just swamped with work,” said Dr. Sauchyn, who is now director of the University of Regina’s Prairie Adaptation Research Collaborative. The group performs climate change research for regional banks, companies, municipalities and other types of organizations.

“Now everybody talks adaptation,” he said.

Much warmer global temperatures have led to fiercer storms, warming oceans, more flooding and a summer of forest fires, including the destructive blazes that continue to burn in the Northwest Territories and British Columbia.

In large parts of the Prairies, milder and sometimes baking days have contributed to the worst state of drought since 2001.

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This might be an exceptional year. But a long history of drought cycles in this dry region, combined with a warming planet, means the Prairies should be prepared to adapt to more summers like this one.

Looking back 1,000 years, there have been dry periods here worse than anything that has been recorded in the past century, Dr. Sauchyn said. He knows this from examinations of tree rings on the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains. From that wooden record, we know that drought will happen again, too. “But now it’s occurring in a warmer climate, which really amplifies the severity,” he said.

This has already had an effect in Calgary, the driest of Canada’s big cities. Calgary was built around the confluence of two small rivers – the Bow and the Elbow – that rely heavily on rain and snow melt in the Rocky Mountains for their flows. Too much water was the biggest danger a decade ago, when historic floods hit the city and other parts of southern Alberta.

But this year, it’s the other side of the same extreme weather coin: There was less precipitation in the mountains over the winter, and there were warmer temperatures in the spring, which led to an earlier-than-normal melt. Glaciers release water into the ecosystem during the late summer months, but even those icy mammoths are in retreat.

The flow on the Elbow is the lowest it has been in more than two decades, and the Bow River is the lowest it has been since 1911, city officials say.

The seriousness of the situation is evident in the outdoor water restrictions that were put in place earlier this month by the city of Calgary. The city has, in past years, put restrictions in place because of flooding. This is the first time restrictions have been put in place as a result of drought.

Nicole Newton, the city’s manager of natural environment and adaptation, said people are responding to the edict. Water use has been brought down to around winter levels, which typically are much lower than in the high-demand summers.

Farther downstream, towns are also facing water restrictions, and farmers and ranchers who make their livings producing our food in Palliser’s Triangle – named after the early Irish explorer who visited Western Canada and reported that sustainable crops would never be possible in southern parts of the Prairies – are struggling. Earth canals and water pipelines are saving the day for some. But everyone wonders whether reservoirs will be refilled for next year. The St. Mary River Irrigation District, which operates between Lethbridge and Medicine Hat, has particularly low water reservoir storage levels.

“It’s been dry everywhere. The further east you go, the drier it’s been,” said Richard Phillips, general manager of the Bow River Irrigation District, headquartered in Vauxhall, Alta. “There’s been so little rain this year.”

He said this year has been the driest since 2001. The worst year in the many decades before that was 1988, he added.

A part of the problem was the early melt of snow in the mountains, caused by warm weather in May, which left water rushing down more quickly than normal. “When it comes down so fast like that, you can’t grab it. It’s gone,” Mr. Phillips said.

Dr. Sauchyn has long been predicting that climate change will mean an increase in precipitation on the Prairies, though he has said the extra snow and rain will be offset by hotter temperatures. This week he said it’s impossible to predict whether we’re entering one of our historic dry cycles.

Still, we need to prepare for that possibility. In Calgary, for instance, the goal is to hold withdrawals from the river steady at the 2003 baseline level of 212.5 billion litres, despite the city’s fast-growing population. Some means of change may be relatively painless, such as collecting rainwater for watering and outdoor washing. Dr. Sauchyn said that although we can’t create more fresh water, we can get much better at storing it. People and systems can change.

“After all, John Palliser said we shouldn’t come here – he said it will forever be comparatively useless,” Dr. Sauchyn said. The Palliser expedition happened in the late 1850s, a period of drought in the southern Prairies.

“You can argue that we’re quite adaptable, otherwise we wouldn’t have succeeded in populating this part of the world,” he said. “Otherwise, we wouldn’t still be here.”

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