ALMONTE - You’d expect a conversation about a drought to be, well, dry, but Steve D’Eon, brought the funny, promising a discussion on “50 Shades of Green or Brown.”
D’Eon, of the Forest Stewardship Committee of Renfrew County, knew that he needed to start off with some levity because, when it comes to things like forests, agriculture, ecosystems and wells, the news was far from a laughing matter.
“The worst time to have a drought is in the spring,” said D’Eon. “And that is when we had it. An average drought is not as bad as a spring drought.”
D’Eon was speaking at the conference “Drought of 2012: Impacts and Lessons Learned in the Mississippi Valley Watershed,” at the Almonte Old Town Hall, on Jan. 12, hosted by the Community Stewardship Council of Lanark County and the Mississippi Valley Conservation Authority.
The long-term effects on trees of the 2012 drought will likely be felt on the area’s forest some time to come. D’Eon pointed to statistics his group had accumulated which showed that for last year’s proper plant rate of 95 per cent, there was only a 24 per cent survival for trees planted in 2012, representing a loss of about $150,00.
“Height growth is determined by the previous year’s conditions,” said D’Eon, so some of the stunted growth will not be seen until the end of summer 2014. “I suspect you will see a decline in height growth.”
However, he urged attendees to, literally, see the forest for the trees, and vice versa.
“Forests are different from trees. Forests are resilient,” he said. “Forests are more than just trees. The resource is the site, trees are the crop.”
Other crops in the area did poorly too.
If 1972 was the wettest year in living memory for Steve Moore of the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, then 2012 was definitely the driest.
“This is the worst, at the other end, I have seen,” said Moore. “Renfrew County got hit heavy, early on. We saw a lot of wells dry early, in July.”
While they were well-intentioned in their efforts, Moore noted that some local fire departments poured water down wells, only to have the water evaporate into the dry earth within a day or so.
But even at this, just how hard the drought hit varied widely on just where in eastern Ontario you were. He noted that in places like Richmond, fields were seeing close to average yields, while areas like Mississippi Mills and Renfrew County were harder hit.
“Corn should be fence high by the first of July,” Moore recalled of the old saying.
Even for corn that did survive, there were other consequences.
“Whenever corn is under stress, that leads to higher nitrates,” said Moore. Many farmers tested their grain so as to double check that they were not unintentionally poisoning their cattle.
Cattle, though they did not know any better, were making the situation worse, by chewing grass right down to nothing, and for cattle that did survive the drought, they did not put as much weight on as in other years since “this year there was a lot of time spent walking back to the water (trough).”
The drought taught many people some hard lessons, and opened up many eyes that water conservation and management will likely have to change.
“What if this keeps on keeping on?” wondered Moore. “We may have to change to drought-resistant varieties of crops. It’s been done all over the world. We’ve been blessed that it hasn’t been a huge issue here for us.”
He also urged more economical use of water in future.
“Farming has been pretty tough forever,” said Moore. “But these last few years have been tougher than ever,” from the BSE crisis with Canadian cattle, to children not wanting to continue on with the family, to last year’s drought.
But Moore was cautiously optimistic about the future of farming in the area.
“Tipping points? I don’t know,” he said. “Crops have a tipping point. People, I don’t know. Everyone has a stressor point.”
He did point to the Ontario Forage and Livestock Transportation Assistance Initiative which helped transport crops and livestock during the hard times last year.
“Thank goodness for Hay East,” Moore said, though he added that the exact numbers for the amount of crops lost to the drought has yet to be fully calculated.
For Shawn Thompson of the Ministry of Natural Resources, the seeds of the summer drought can be found in the previous winter of 2011-12.
“We had no snow last year, which I gauge by the number of times I had to shovel my driveway, and it wasn’t many, thank goodness,” said Thompson. March 2012 was also pretty warm. As he looked at March’s temperatures, Thompson found himself saying, “This isn’t good.”
Sadly, he was prophetic in his outlook. “If there is no more coming in and a lot flowing out, eventually, it will dry out,” he said, noting that a local lake where he used to moor his boat now required him to schlep through 50 feet of muck to reach the shore.
“A lot of this started in 2011, it started to get dry,” Thompson said. “(But) things are starting to come back. We’ve got nice snow loads and some precipitation. Only time will tell.”
As for the Mississippi River, he noted cautiously that “the river is at the norm, but the other contributors are not. I’ve seen the bottoms of wetlands that I’ve never seen the bottom of for nearly 30 years.”
Peter Stanton of Stanton Drilling Inc. revealed that about 90 per cent of wells in the area are drilled well that are sunk into bedrock, which were the least likely to be affected in a drought, but that the depths of the well can vary in different parts of the area. The average well depth in Carleton Place could be between 50 and 60 feet, while places like Carp, Clayton and Lanark can range from four to 500 feet deep, gushing up water from a rate of 1 gallon per minute to hundreds of gallons per minute.
“The biggest number of calls we had in the last year were, thankfully, the more shallow wells,” said Stanton. Lately, “older wells have had to be replaced by deeper wells.”
Stanton said that he drought has had the largest effect on the quantity and quality of well water in the area.
“The water levels will drop,” he said. “They will recoup. The drilled wells will recover.”