Morden restricts water usage amid severe drought, while farmers fret over parched soil conditions

A dry fall, winter and now spring have taken a toll in southern Manitoba, where the City of Morden says it is experiencing a severe drought and imploring people to conserve water.

City needs a stretch of steady rain; 'if that doesn't happen we're in fairly big trouble,' says mayor

The water in Dead Horse Creek is just a trickle these days as Morden experiences a severe drought. (Adeline Peters/Submitted by City of Morden)

A dry fall, winter and now spring have taken a toll in southern Manitoba, where the City of Morden says it is experiencing a severe drought and imploring people to conserve water.

The current level of Lake Minnewasta, the source of Morden's water, is nearly seven feet (just over two metres) below the full supply level, the city said in a notice posted on its website.

Mayor Brandon Burley said levels that low have not been seen in the city, roughly 100 kilometres southwest of Winnipeg, since 1983.

"In terms of recent history, it's unprecedented," he said, noting islands are "popping out" of Lake Minnewasta.

"If the current average precipitation that we've experienced over the past four years holds true for this year, we won't have enough ability to treat water by the end of summer — we'll be 16.5 feet below the dam level."

The severe drought stage begins when water levels drop 5.5 feet (1.68 metres) below the usual full supply level.

As a result, the city has implemented a drought response, instructing residents and businesses in the city of roughly 8,700 on how to scale back their water usage. The aim is to reduce peak water usage by 25 per cent.

The City of Morden posted this on its website, outlining recommended and mandatory measures to reduce water usage. (City of Morden)

"We are trying to get ahead of it [the dire summer prediction] and are looking to our community for help in reducing water consumption," Burley said.

A mandatory ban on watering lawns or landscaping is in place, while garden watering is only allowed twice a week, with designated days for odd and even house numbers.

Splash pads and pools are not allowed to operate with Morden-sourced water and farmers cannot irrigate unless they have a permit to pump from a raw water station.

Recreational activities have also been scaled back for Lake Minnewasta, with all motor-powered watercraft prohibited until things improve.

"It's very, very difficult to treat the water when silt and everything at the bottom of the lake is stirred up into the drinking water," Burley said, adding there are also several voluntary restrictions the city hopes people will honour.

The drought mitigation plan was approved about three weeks ago by council but did not take effect at that point, Burley said.

The city was optimistic about a forecast around that time which promised "an awful lot of rain," but that did not materialize, he said.

"So we have to bring it into effect now."

If the needed precipitation comes, the restrictions will be lifted. But there needs to be a lot of rain, Burley said.

"It's not like if we get rain quickly it will remedy the situation. The ground is so dry," he said.

The city received just under an inch of rain on the weekend and within about two hours the ground was bone dry again, he said.

"So it's going to take a lot of steady rain. If that doesn't happen we're in fairly big trouble."

Concern for farmers

The extreme conditions are also being watched closely by farmers in the province.

While the dry ground makes it much easier for farm equipment to get onto the fields and seed, there is uncertainty about whether the subsoil moisture is enough to help those crops grow.

"It's been a long time since we've seen it where there's no mud on the tires. But it's a concern moving forward," said Bill Campbell, president of Keystone Agricultural Producers, a group that advocates for farmers in the province.

"There's no water laying around anywhere. As we move along and the crop emerges and … starts requiring moisture and it takes all that's available. What then?

Bill Campbell, president of Keystone Agricultural Producers, says farmers are extremely concerned about the dry conditions and the impact could eventually be reflected in grocery store prices. (Keystone Agricultural Producers)

"Some of the yield potential of these crops is determined very early in its life and stress at the early stages will cause irreplaceable damage."

That could really hurt forage production — the plant material eaten by grazing livestock. 

"I think that's going to be a huge issue," said Campbell. "I think you only need to look around and see how much the grass is growing in the last three weeks. That that's been very limited.

"The cold, cold nights and cool days lately have led to a concern about how much grass there's going to be."

Dugouts and retention ponds are also sorely lacking moisture, which will impact where farmers can pasture their animals. Campbell said the levels in dugouts are seven to 10 feet lower than what they have been at this time of the year historically. 

"If you don't have water sources and your dugout goes dry, you're left with very limited options," he said.

Some vegetable and potato crops also rely on dugouts for irrigation "and some of those streams that have been used for irrigation are virtually dry at this point in time," he said.

"You only need to look at the trees to see that there's not much growing really out of the prairie. We're going to need a lot of help from Mother Nature to ensure that we have season-long production and growth."

Impact at the grocery stores

Poor crops will affect the broader population as well, reflected in grocery store prices, Campbell said. 

The situation facing Manitoba farmers is not isolated to this province, he noted. The conditions are similar across the southern part of western Canada and into the United States.

"Current indications are Brazil in a huge problem with drought as well. And I've even had conversations that Europe's in a bit of a drought in production issues," Campbell said.

"So it will be interesting to see how this evolves as to what we have for production globally.

"We have a population that has a huge appetite for food and where it's going to come from will be an interesting conversation as we move forward for sure."

Severe drought conditions in Morden, Man.

3 years ago
Duration 1:57
Featured VideoA dry fall, winter and now spring have taken a toll in southern Manitoba, where the City of Morden says it is experiencing a severe drought and imploring people to conserve water.


Darren Bernhardt spent the first dozen years of his journalism career in newspapers, at the Regina Leader-Post then the Saskatoon StarPhoenix. He has been with CBC Manitoba since 2009 and specializes in offbeat and local history stories. He is the author of award-nominated and bestselling The Lesser Known: A History of Oddities from the Heart of the Continent.