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Around Rosetown, Sask., farmers say they're worried the worst drought in decades could be underway. ((CBC))

Cracked soil and cloudless skies have fuelled fears that 2009 could become etched in the minds of farmers as one of the worst recorded droughts in recent history.

Even more troubling is the fact that a severe dry spell could follow so closely after the last drought, in 2001-02, that cost the Canadian economy $5.8 billion and was one of Canada's most expensive natural disasters.

Dave Sauchyn, a University of Regina geography professor, says two major droughts in a decade is a "disconcerting" indication that climate change prediction models could be right – that the worst is yet to come.

"These models suggest that we should be getting drought – severe drought – more often. So the weather of this decade fits with those model projections," Sauchyn told CBC Radio's The Current.

Sauchyn has been compiling data about drought in the prairies from the past 1,000 years by analyzing tree rings. Based on his research, he worries the Prairies could be due for a severe, extended drought like the ones seen in previous centuries.

Palliser's Triangle

In the late 1850s, when Irish explorer Capt. John Palliser first saw the plains' region that now goes by his name, he declared the dry land to be ill-suited for settlement.

But years later, others revived hopes that the area would be good for farming, wheat in particular, and the British government began encouraging settlers to move there.

Though considered part of the breadbasket of Canada, the triangle-shaped area is known for its recurrent dry spells.

The area is located north of the American border, starting in the west from Calgary and Cardston, Alta., stretching northeast to Lloydminster, Sask., and then down to Cartwright in southwestern Manitoba.

A 2008 report by Natural Resources Canada predicts much of the same for the region: increased aridity and more frequent droughts as climate change takes its toll.

Hardest hit by the current drought are tens of thousands of farmers in west-central Saskatchewan and central Alberta, an area known as Palliser's Triangle that is home to much of Canada's farmland but was once deemed unsuitable for farming.

This spring, the region saw less precipitation than it has experienced in the past 50 years.

The extreme dry weather has prompted at least 10 Alberta counties to declare states of emergency, many of them around the city of Edmonton.

Rains in early July — more than 40 millimetres in places such as Grande Prairie, Alta. — came as a relief to some farmers. But for others, it was already time to start writing off their crops.

'Walking on Rice Krispies'

Even the destructive and costly drought of 2001-02  – when farms were abandoned and 41,000 jobs were lost – saw more moisture by early July, says David Phillips, a senior climatologist with Environment Canada.

"You go out on the Prairies and you see cracked soil, it'd be like we're walking on Rice Krispies," he said at the time.

"One's going to need a lot of moisture just to overcome the deficit they've got. Any good weather that comes now will only provide a marginal, at best, harvest."

Six of the top 10 costliest disasters in Canadian history have been droughts, and their effects spread far beyond the agricultural sector. It can take decades for the land to fully recover.

For Albert Wagner, the domino effect is obvious and starts with the downsizing of herds farmers can no longer afford to feed.

"In addition to that, you start to lose your infrastructure, your truckers and feed mills and auction marts and what not," Wagner told The Current.

"They also downsize to adjust to the volume of business. That doesn't come back either that quickly, so it's gonna have a long-term impact in that sense."

Wagner, who operates a grain and livestock operation in Stony Plain, Alta., says he may not yield any harvest from his canola crop, but his primary concern is cattle feed. Already, he says, farmers are worried about having sufficient forage to feed their animals over winter.

'Dust bowl' not worst drought

Droughts at their most basic simply refer to a prolonged period of abnormally dry weather that depletes the water needed for humans and the environment. In the agricultural sense, it refers to any time there's not enough soil moisture to support crops.

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These dry fields near Camrose, Alta., are typical of what farmers are facing in the east-central part of the province. (CBC) ((CBC))

Though the so-called "dust bowl" 1930s are widely considered Canada's worst drought, Sauchyn says the Prairies have seen worse.

Hudson Bay Company archives from the 1790s detail how fur traders were unable to move their goods down the North Saskatchewan River because the waterway had run dry.

Another severe, decade-long dry spell hit the region in the 1850s, shortly before settlers began arriving.

"That's when Capt. John Palliser came through and made his famous declaration that the region would be "forever comparatively useless" and he advised the governments not to settle the Prairies," said Sauchyn.

Canada's most expensive natural disasters

 Disaster  Provinces  Cost
2001-02 drought* B.C., Prairies, Ont., Quebec, and N.S. $5.8B
1998 ice storm Ont., Quebec, and Atlantic Canada $5.4B
1979-1980 drought Prairies $2.5B
1988 drought Prairies $1.8B
1996 flood Saguenay, Que. $1.7B
1984 drought Prairies  $1B

Source: Environment Canada and Natural Resources Canada.

*Estimated drop in GDP.

Strangely, the drought-prone Prairies experienced a sustained period of wet weather over the course of the three decades — the 1880s, 1890s and 1900s — when Saskatchewan and Alberta saw an influx of settlers, says Sauchyn.

"Those three decades when most people came to the Prairies were amongst the wettest three decades in the past 1,000 years. So there were some fairly fortuitous circumstances that encouraged people to come and stay," he explains.

But the bumper crops soon gave way to the dry conditions of the 1920s and 1930s, when the first major drought struck the Prairies since its settlement.

Over the past two centuries, at least 40 droughts have hit Western Canada, according to the Drought Research Initiative.

Draining wallets

With such a historical propensity for drought, some farmers are getting frustrated with what they see as poor government response to such weather-related disasters.

"There's always going to be some sort of weather-related disaster – whether its frost or flood or drought," says Stewart Wells, who operates Penny Lane Organic Farms with his wife near Swift Current, Sask., and is president of the National Farmers Union.

"But in Canada we haven't come to terms with that and we haven't developed any decent programming that's actually in place and predictable to deal with these sorts of disasters."

While farmers have crop insurance programs and longer-term help with crop shortfalls, the union president says there's not enough emergency funding and no compensation for lost salary when a harvest is lost. 

Wells says an AgriRecovery program put in place to allow provincial and federal governments to work together to help farmers during disasters is run on an ad hoc basis.

Because it's a "loose collection of new and different programs" each time a weather event is deemed a disaster, there's the inherent potential for it to become a "politically-motivated event," he says.

Wells is lucky enough to live on the outer edge of the hardest hit regions, where a little rain would leave his 2,300 cultivated acres of wheat, barley, peas and lentils looking "quite good."

By comparison, that amount of rain would be just enough to "keep the dust down and start some green growth" in the drought-stricken region, he says.

Regina professor David Sauchyn notes that for the past 100 years farmers have done a "tremendous" job in drought-proofing their farms, but even that has limits.

"Of course, there's only so much you can do with a lack of water. Nobody can cope very well without water," he notes wryly.