Why drought is a dirty word in Alberta

The devil is commonly known to be in the details, but in Alberta it's in the drought — the word drought that is.

Some people aren’t keen to say it, and the reason why may come down to dollars and cents

Parkland County farmer Graham Jesperson typically sells up to 70 per cent of his grain, but this year's dry conditions mean he will have to use every bit of his small yield to keep his own operation going. (Travis McEwan/CBC)

The devil is commonly known to be in the details, but in Alberta it's in the drought — the word drought that is. 

Some people aren't keen to say it, and the reason why may come down to dollars and cents.

This recent case of drought phobia seemed to spread after a municipal district in central Alberta trumpeted the word Monday in a dire-sounding press release.

"These extreme drought conditions are devastating crops across Parkland County," wrote Mayor Rod Shiagec.  

His statement pointed out that moisture levels in some areas of Alberta are at the lowest levels recorded in 50 years, which is a big part of the reason why his council says it voted unanimously to declare a state of "agricultural disaster" and "call attention to this extremely important issue."

Parkland County council called it a drought, the mayor called it a drought, but people with the provincial government called it something else.

The d-word

"I share the concerns of many agricultural producers and families over the dry conditions that we have been experiencing in many areas of the province," Oneil Carlier, the minister of agriculture and forestry, wrote in a statement released just a few hours after Parkland County made its announcement.

His statement had four paragraphs — not one included the d-word.

"At this point, I guess, the word we're using is not drought," said Charlie Pearson, a crops market analyst for Alberta's provincial government.

But he did speak to CBC about how the dry weather is affecting crop output and the economy.

"The conditions across the province are extremely dry in a lot of different locations. But we also have some locations that probably aren't in as difficult conditions in terms of moisture," he said.

There was tongue-tying at the federal level too. A CBC crew booked an interview with drought-watch federal scientist Trevor Hadwen about the weather in Alberta. The scientist agreed to the interview and a camera operator went to meet him.

In the end though, he didn't talk at all about anything drought-related or otherwise. Media relations wouldn't give him the approval.

"There are very elaborate plans for when there is low precipitation or, and I will use the word, drought in the province," said Stan Blade, the dean of the University of Alberta's agricultural, life and environmental science department.

'Once-in-a-century issues'

Blade said he can understand the reluctance. For one thing, the conditions don't extend provincewide like they did during the worst droughts of recent memory in 2002 and 2009.

"There are four or five areas in the province that are seeing once-in-a-century issues ... where yields will be significantly lower than average," he said. "But there are other parts of the province that are normal or below average."

Second, there is no set or official definition for drought, as it varies from agency to agency.

And third, the term can have money attached to it.

"I have not experienced the fact that people are uncomfortable using that word," Blade said. "But it probably does have some financial implications."

Alberta has an official "agriculture drought risk management plan" that includes a drought disaster loan program for farmers that's initiated under extreme conditions.

Provincial agriculture spokesperson Mike Long explained that is a different pot of funding than the financial relief available to farmers on an ongoing basis, such as crop insurance. He said not one such disaster loan program has been set up in Alberta so far this year, but adds that's not the reason the government isn't calling this a drought.

"The word drought is pretty subjective," he said.

According to the Alberta's government website, "drought is commonly considered to be a deficiency of moisture when compared to some normal or expected amount over an extended period of time."

Long said "certainly there are areas that are drier than normal. But we're not using that term."

Good thing you know by now what he's talking about.