Did you notice the colours of the leaves changed earlier than usual this year? If you went to pick apples this season, they came earlier as well. The reason? Not frost, but one of the worst droughts on record. May to July saw a tenth of the average rainfall. July had some rain to water the forests, but not enough to fill the rivers. Water tables across the province have continued to drop because, although August and September were average in temperature, only a quarter of the average rain fell. Ours is a drought that nobody discusses.
I look at the world a little differently because I studied geology, glaciation, and hydrology. Maybe you never noticed the little rain we got this summer because it was so lovely that you didn’t think about it. But I did.
While we went about our summer activities, the rivers ran dry, the water tables dropped, and the people who get their water from wells have been worried or are already out of water. Over 300,000 people get water from wells across New Brunswick. The abnormally low water tables have impacted many of these well water users.
There are a lot more people at our local spring, filling up with water these days. We started catching rain last year, to water the garden. But, even then, we have had to ration the water, as the garden did not flourish in the way we had hoped it would. We did catch rain again this year, but we got much less than the year before. Food shortages during COVID-19 motivated many of us to start a garden this year. But, for first-time gardeners, it was not an inspiring garden season because of such abnormally dry weather.
We increased our rain catchment storage capacity to 8,000 litres, not wanting to waste a drop of water off the roof. I bought a 1,000-litre storage tote from a local farmer, and he told me troubling accounts of low hay production. Production was down half from average for him, and some farmers up “north” were unable to get their first cut in at all, for fear of killing their super dry grasses. The drought has affected farmers, which has affected the cost and the availability of the food we eat.
New Brunswick has seen hay and forage shortages, which have forced some cattle producers to sell their stock, at different times since 2018. In early August, CBC interviewed Cedric MacLeod, of Local Valley Beef, in Centreville. He reported the worst hay crops in his 17 years on the farm.
“Guys and gals are pulling off between fifty percent cent of their normal average” said MacLeod.
In Hartland, I saw grasses growing on a dry Wolastoq (Saint John River) bed, under the world’s longest covered bridge. A 60-year-old lifelong resident explained to me that he had never seen the water so low. Many of the waterfalls around Fredericton have become mere trickles over the rocks, with dry, empty riverbeds.
Global Warming plays a significant role in the drought; of that, there is no question. New Brunswick is not alone, however. Droughts are becoming widespread, around the world. The Danube, which is the world’s second longest river, has been so low that, at different times since 2018, it has been closed to shipping traffic. Yet, the “Day 0” water crisis in Cape Town, in which the city was on the verge of becoming the first city in the world to run out of water in 2017 and 2018, barely made the news in North America. Extraordinary conservation efforts helped avoid catastrophe; catastrophe which might have lead to riots, deaths, and economic disaster.
But, what about the local? We tend to think of Global Warming as something ambiguous, something that takes place only in the high atmosphere, but it can cause drought, which can damage local ecosystems.
What can we do in New Brunswick?
Stop clearcutting. Forests breathe air and water through transpiration, and their presence brings about localized rainfall. A rainforest is, well, a rainforest precisely because of the trees. I have family who live near a property on the Canaan Watershed that was clearcut on a large scale. While rains do come locally, each time the water missed their property, by a few kilometres. Eventually, the loss was so great that they lost their well water. This localized drought was no coincidence, but rather it was caused by the disruption of the local evaporation cycles due to the clearcut. Clearcutting and the monoculture forest policies in our province take water from all living creatures, be they animals, plants, and humans.
Shade the watershed. In the Nashwaak Valley where I live, the river has been so low, the lowest that I have seen in 13 years, and the water temperature has risen. With the water levels so low, fish cannot hide in the cooler, deeper waters. When much effort has been put into saving the Atlantic Salmon, little attention has been given to an activity that could help the most—keeping the river shaded by trees. Salmon become stressed when the temperatures rise over 20 degrees Celsius, and they stop feeding. Temperatures as high as 27 degrees Celsius in salmon-bearing habitats were recorded at Durham Bridge this summer by the Nashwaak Watershed Association.
Don’t till the soil. The amount of carbon dioxide emissions caused by overtilling is one of the leading causes of greenhouse gas emissions. Bare soils dry and are at a greater risk of erosion because of wind and heavy rains. For example, the Dust Bowl that led to the Great Depression was caused by generations of over-tilling. At the same time, the Rodale Institute offers a wealth of information on alternatives to till.
Manage your woodlot to create and maintain healthy riparian zones on the edges of rivers by planting trees and by rebuilding damaged soils.
Take the opportunity to build momentum, to save forests, to grow the watershed, and to keep drought from becoming a permanent part of our lives.
Don’t give up; we need you.
Drew Gilbert lives in Taymouth, New Brunswick, where he is an enthusiast in renewable energy.