'Unprecedented' water levels bad for farmers, good for birds

Excessive rain and high water levels are affecting farmers and nature lovers differently in northern and central Alberta.

Areas of northern, central Alberta experiencing rainfall levels that occur less than once every 50 years

Beaverhill Lake, an hour east of Edmonton, is seeing a surge in bird populations after a wet spring season. (Anna Desmarais/CBC)

Excessive rain and high water levels are affecting farmers and nature lovers differently in central and northern Alberta. 

Alberta Agriculture and Forestry reported on June 22 that the northeast and northwest parts of the province have received roughly 250 mm of rain since April 1, about half the amount of precipitation normally received in an entire year. 

According to the ministry, that happens less than once every 50 years.

Agricultural disaster for farmers

In May, Beaver County issued a "state of agricultural disaster" for farmers in the area, southeast of Edmonton. 

The trouble for farmers started last year, with a long period of drought followed by excessive rain. Now, after a wet winter and spring, farmers in the county are having difficulty planting in their fields.

County representative Kevin Smook said the high water levels make it difficult for farmers to harvest their crops.

"It's essentially a wasted season," he said Thursday.

Beaver County representative Kevin Smook says the rain hitting eastern Alberta hurts farmers in his county. (CBC)

Too much water affects the absorption rate for crop roots, slowing down crop growth. Wet fields also limit what equipment farmers can bring onto their fields to harvest the crops.

Smook said 20 to 30 per cent of this year's entire crop yield won't be harvested because of the bad weather, erasing a good portion of farmers' incomes.

"If those crops are still on the field, it's a big gap in their bank account," Smook said. "It's going to be tough to recover from that for a long, long time."

Bird populations soaring

While farmers suffer, bird populations in Beaver County have soared.

The area around Beaverhill Lake near Tofield saw its bird population double in the last two years. Part of the reason for the increase in the overall population is the increase in rainfall.

A bird flies over Beaverhill Lake. The observatory has recorded 230 species of birds in its natural area. (CBC )

Geoff Holroyd, chair of the Beaverhill Bird Observatory, said some threatened bird species, such as the yellow rail and the Sprague's pipit are successfully breeding in Beaverhill Lake because of the high water levels.

"We are thrilled that there's more birds," Holroyd said. "That means the habitat is good."

Holroyd's team also recorded thousands of waterfowl, gulls and ducks in the region.

"The water increases the vegetation [so] there's more insects and then the birds are able to get more food."

The spring season has been so successful, in fact, that observatory staff are hoping to count 150 new bird species at the observatory before Canada Day. So far, they've registered 138.

Geoff Holroyd, chair of the Beaverhill Bird Observatory, looks through a pair of binoculars at birds flying on the lake. (CBC )

Even though the birds are thriving at the lake, Holroyd said he feels for the farmers.

"There's a plus and minus to all of the water cycles," he said. "It's clear that it impacts farmers negatively, but that's been very positive for Beaverhill Lake."

Beaver County is also asking the province for disaster relief funding to address the challenges the rain has brought to the roads in the county.