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1961 drought worse than the ‘30s?

The Story

It's 1961, and once again the dust is blowing across the prairies. Farmers are saying this year's drought is actually much worse than the 1930s in terms of crop yield. This CBC Television clip shows how Westerners are grappling with the drought. While Natives do their "Indian rain dance" to provoke the rain, Saskatchewan Premier Tommy Douglas hopes the new South Saskatchewan Dam -- expected to be complete in 1965 -- will help ease some of the pain of future droughts.

Medium: Television
Program: Newsmagazine
Broadcast Date: July 9, 1961
Guests: Tommy Douglas, William Harrison, Tom Kuryluk
Host: Norman DePoe, Ron Laplante
Duration: 12:54

Did You know?

• According to Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, 1961 was the worst drought year on record in terms of the amount of land affected and the severity of dryness. In 1961, large areas of the Prairies received 60 per cent less precipitation than normal. So, 1961 was technically a worse drought than the '30s. The impact wasn't as dramatic, however, since the 1930s drought lasted for almost a decade (as opposed to just one year) and happened at the same time as the Great Depression.

• In addition to the 1930s and 1961, other severe 20th-century Prairie drought years include:
• 1984
• 1988
• 2001
• 2002

• The federal and Saskatchewan provincial governments agreed to create the South Saskatchewan Dam -- also known as the South Saskatchewan River Project -- in 1958. It was designed to provide a reservoir to help irrigate drought-stricken farmland. The Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration (PFRA) oversaw the project.

• A dam is an artificial barrier constructed across a flowing body of water in an effort to contain a water reserve.

• Citizens and politicians had been suggesting the idea of a dam at the South Saskatchewan River since the beginning of the 20th century. High costs were often the main barrier to implementing the project.

• Prior to the completion of the South Saskatchewan River Project, small irrigation projects and other domestic and municipal water users used less than one per cent of the average 8.4 billion cubic metres that flowed annually through the Saskatchewan River.

• Saskatchewan Premier Tommy Douglas was instrumental in pushing through the project, as was Prime Minister Diefenbaker. Diefenbaker had made the project one of his campaign promises in the election of 1957.

• Construction on the project began in 1959. Prime Minister John Diefenbaker was present at the groundbreaking ceremony, and announced: "Canada...seeks to ensure that there will be less heartbreak and surer hope in this region in years to come."

• The project was finally completed in 1967. There were two dams created; the Gardiner Dam (Canada's largest earth fill dam) and the smaller Qu'Appelle Dam. Together they made up what became known as Lake Diefenbaker.

• The Gardiner Dam spillway is more than a kilometre long, and it took 280,000 cubic metres of reinforced concrete to build.

• The project cost about $120 million to build between 1959 and 1967. The provincial government paid $25 million and the federal government (via the PFRA) paid $95 million. If it were being built today, it would cost a total of $1 billion.

• The entire reservoir has the capacity to hold approximately four billion cubic metres of water. Today, Lake Diefenbaker's water is used for irrigation projects, but it also feeds a hydroelectric power plant. It's a popular recreation area as well.


Devastating Dry Spells: Drought on the Prairies more