Riverhurst ferry in Saskatchewan. beached indefinitely due to low water levels
Spring is well underway in Saskatchewan, but one of the province’s busiest ferries has still not been able to open.
The Riverhurst ferry, located northwest of Moose Jaw, typically carries about 30,000 vehicles a year on the South Saskatchewan River, according to the Department of Highways, which operates the vessel.
But the water levels are too low for him to start operations. Lake Diefenbaker levels are about a meter and a half below normal for this time of year, according to a Department of Highways spokesperson. Diefenbaker is a man-made lake located north of the Riverhurst ferry and fed by the South Saskatchewan River.
The government has recorded low levels like this before, but none of the ferry crews are aware of a time when they were unable to start operating due to shallow water, said the spokesperson in a statement.
The shoreline profile has changed due to sediment buildup, so the level of the entire lake must be higher for the ferry to operate than it was before, they said.
A few factors contribute to the levels of this particular system, said Saman Razavi, an associate professor at the University of Saskatchewan’s School of Environment and Sustainability and a senior fellow at the Global Institute for Water Security. He studied the South Saskatchewan River Basin for several years.
Climate change changes the norms
The dozens of reservoirs upstream in Alberta, which can store and control water, have minimal impact, and regional rainfall also has minimal effect on the system, he said.
This means that the year-to-year variability is dictated by nature – specifically the snow accumulation and melting that occurs high up in the Rocky Mountains. Razavi said the variability has become much more intense and increased due to climate change over the past two decades.
Peak water flows from the mountains have historically occurred around April or May, Razavi said, but levels in April and May this year were well below long-term averages — not the most lowest ever recorded, but reminiscent of levels seen during the 2001 drought.
According to the government, Lake Diefenbaker did not reach its optimum height until last June. The Water Safety Agency hopes water levels will rise again by mid-June this year.
Razavi said the low levels can serve as a reminder of what climate change will do to water flow — and the people who depend on it — in years to come.
“This could be an indication that [we] need to be more fundamentally cautious and start covering water resources more at this time of year,” Razavi said, noting that standards are changing.
“We’re seeing more extreme types of climates in recent years, and so with climate change, we have a shift in average behavior.”
Razavi said this has been demonstrated by both more severe dry and hot spells – like conditions experienced in the region last year – and extreme wet spells.
Keeping these growing extremes and changing climates in mind is critical when it comes to water resource management and planning, especially on the Prairies, he said.
Canada is considered by other countries to be rich in fresh water, but Razavi said there are some areas in the south where water could become scarce.
“Western Canada, particularly the Prairie region, is experiencing water stress that may not be really apparent to many people. And with climate change, those water stresses could get worse,” a- he declared.
“We just have to be aware of that and try to build – more actively – some resilience.”
There is currently no estimate of when the Riverhurst Ferry will resume operations.