Morden resident Theresa Dueck and her family don't use their bathtub just to get clean — they use it to keep their vegetable garden thriving.
Every time Dueck's family takes a bath or shower they put a bucket under the faucet until the water warms up.
"It takes 10 to 15 seconds before the water gets hot... we use it to flush toilets and on the garden," she says.
Most of southern Manitoba is suffering from extreme drought conditions, but the Morden area has been hit particularly hard because man-made Lake Minnewasta is its depleting water source. Levels have been dropping for a couple of years, but things are getting dire now.
It's worse now than it was during the Dust Bowl during the 1930s.
Calculations based on how rapidly the levels are falling, the city of about 8,700 people will run out of drinking water in about 34 weeks.
Conserving water in this southern Manitoba community has become a necessity.
The city now has a bylaw in place to restrict water use. Residents of odd-numbered addresses are permitted to water vegetable gardens on Saturdays and Tuesdays; even-numbered ones can turn on the hose Sundays and Wednesdays.
But that's as far as outdoor watering goes; residents are helplessly watching flowers and plants wither and lawns turn brown and crispy. The city has closed its splash pad, and the bylaw doesn't allow water use to fill backyard pools.
The municipality's bylaw officer has issued warnings to a handful of people who weren't following the rules.
It hasn't come to restrictions on water use inside residences for hygiene, cooking or laundry — at least, not yet — but, like the Duecks, some folks are already finding ways to conserve.
The problem is clear to see during a visit to the lake, she says. There's a lot more beach this year.
"When you go in, you are walking in areas you wouldn't normally be able to walk," she says. "And it is sludgy underneath."
Much like the Dirty '30s drought that choked the Prairies with frequent dust storms, the lack or precipitation across southern Manitoba is drying up fields and dugouts, turning grasshoppers into swarms of locusts destroying what little there is of crops at this point.
While there has been a suggestion of rain to come from what appears to be overcast conditions, for the most part it has been haze from forest fires obscuring sunny skies.
Morden faces supply dilemma as usage restrictions loom across parched Manitoba
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Posted: 7:01 PM Jul. 22, 2021
More Manitobans may be forced to restrict water use, as the province copes with some of the lowest levels in its history.
"We are in a serious, low-water situation," Infrastructure Minister Ron Schuler said at a news conference Thursday.
David Phillips, a senior climatologist with Environment Canada, says Morden is in a particularly hard-hit area of the province.
Looking at the records dating back more than a century recorded by Agriculture Canada's weather station there, the two driest back-to-back years since the 1920s are 2020 and 2021, he says.
Morden recorded a total of only 293 millimetres of precipitation last year and the prediction for this year is 318 millimetres if — and it's a big if — there's normal precipitation going forward, he says.
The average is 541 millimetres.
Phillips says conditions in the area have been drier than normal for some time. The most recent 10-year precipitation average was 417 millimetres and the decade before that averaged 485 millimetres.
Morden received its normal average precipitation just once since 2011: 650 millimetres in 2016. And below-average precipitation has fallen in 14 of the last 16 years.
By comparison, the 10-year average for the dust-choked 1930s was 471 mm.
"Even in the Dirty '30s the driest year was 351 mm in 1931," Phillips says. "Clearly, the last decade has been a different world with precipitation. It has been the driest decade in the last 10 decades."
"Even in the Dirty '30s the driest year was 351 mm in 1931. Clearly, the last decade has been a different world with precipitation. It has been the driest decade in the last 10 decades." – David Phillips, a senior climatologist with Environment Canada
And it has been hotter. While the 1930s saw an average annual temperature of 3.2C, over the last decade it has been 4.3C.
"The 100-year average is about 3.5C so 4.3 is a sea change," he says. "In the 1990s the average temperature was 3.3C so it has really gone up dramatically.
"It becomes a real problem for farmers; you almost wonder if you should be in that business... but a drought like this would have been catastrophic back in the 1930s."
Morden Mayor Brandon Burley says Lake Minnewasta is currently more than 2.5 metres (about 8 1/2 feet) below the full supply level.
"We're losing about five to six inches every two weeks on the lake level," he says.
"We're hoping for the best and preparing for the worst."
The community is currently installing a new pipe connecting it with Winkler — about 13 kilometres away — to pump in water from the Pembina Valley Water Cooperative Inc.
The Altona-based co-op has water-treatment plants in Letellier, Morris and Springfield and supplies about 50,000 people over a large swath of southern Manitoba.
"It is costing us $66,500 for the pipe with the province and Pembina Valley paying for the rest," says Burley, noting the city has always had a small hookup that pumped in two litres per second, but that "is negligible" for what the community now needs.
"It will be completed by early September, so if we can get four more weeks out of the lake, that will be great. Our price is less than what we will pay to Pembina, so we will have to adjust the utility rates — it could be 10 to 15 per cent higher — but there's nothing we can do.
"We have the one lake and we have always been all in on it. we have to diversify our supply."
"We're losing about five to six inches every two weeks on the lake level. We're hoping for the best and preparing for the worst." – Morden Mayor Brandon Burley
The mayor says city council has approved paying for a study to look at building another dam upstream on the Dead Horse Creek. The original dam was built in 1941, creating Lake Minnewasta.
"Even if we had six inches of rain today, our council is doing things to make sure this never happens again," he says.
The scenic Minnewasta Golf and Country Club and farmers have contracts allowing them to draw water from the lake, preventing the city from restricting their use. The golf course has, however, decided to limit its watering to the greens.
Others are helping, too. Chris Unrau, owner of Precision Land Solutions in Morden, says his company manufactures and installs innovative drainage systems in fields, so it was easy to install them at the business property on the east side of the city this year.
Unrau says residents are able to go to his faucet to fill up water jugs or step up to 1,000-litre tanks to use for watering their gardens, and it's free.
"You can't build anything without good drainage, and normally Manitoba is pretty wet," he says. "We thought here was an opportunity to capture water and let people use it. The uptake has been phenomenal. One guy was so thankful he even dropped off a dozen doughnuts for us."
Elsewhere, the conditions have devastated cattle operations. Provincial and federal relief measures were finally announced Thursday.
Aaron Osioway, a cattle farmer in the Interlake, has pivoted a bit during the drought and the COVID-19 pandemic and he hopes it helps save his livelihood.
Osioway, who has about 100 head of cattle on a farm southwest of Arborg, has a website for his Prairie Sunset Ranch where he now sells meat orders and shares in his cattle.
"I was a paramedic for almost 15 years and I quit to come back to the farm," he says. "I took it over in the first year of the drought.
What the heat and drought hadn't damaged in his pasture, insects did.
"This is almost the perfect storm," he says. "Our farm has been around for a very long time — it is a 100-year farm — and they said this area would never dry up because there is a marsh by a lake. But I can drive end to end now and I get no water on my tires.
"My dad is just in shock."
Osioway says he may have to drill a well near the cattle so they have water. And where normally he would have been able to harvest about 1,000 hay bales so far, he has 137.
He knows other farmers are having to make the tough choice of reducing the size of their herds — or liquidating — and he knows he will, too.
"We'll have to sell off some of our good breeding stock; it is tough," he says. "We'll start with 10 to 15 animals this week. People just don't know how bad it is and what's going on out here."
Normally, the Ashern Cattle Auction would be closed because animals would be foraging in pastures. This year it's holding emergency drought sales every two weeks. So far 1,478 cattle have gone on the auction block.
"It's such a disaster in this area," says Kirk Kiesman, manager of the Interlake Cattlemen's Co-operative Association, which conducts the sales.
"Some (farmers) are being proactive, but some are in it so bad they have to (sell). There is no pasture and no hay. When you have no feed it becomes an animal-welfare issue, so you have to get rid of them before they get hungry."
At the auction earlier this week, 76 of its the association's 600 members sold cattle. There was a similar number two weeks ago.
"I would say there is less than half the feed for the cows in the area and about half the producers will have to reduce their herds," he says. "Everybody is standing behind the 8-ball."
"I would say there is less than half the feed for the cows in the area and about half the producers will have to reduce their herds. Everybody is standing behind the 8–ball." – Kirk Kiesman, manager of the Interlake Cattlemen's Co–operative Association
Things are drying up in Winnipeg, as well.
The current open-air fire ban that was imposed July 14 and is scheduled to remain until Wednesday prevents residents from using backyard fire pits, fireworks or charcoal or wood-burning barbecues.
Spokespeople for the city say they have increased watering of civic gardens, planters and green spaces and reduced the frequency and staff needed to mow lawns and boulevards.
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One benefit has been fewer days of city construction projects shut down due to inclement weather.
The city says while it has seen an increase in water usage overall, it isn't considering any restrictions because, while the level at Shoal Lake is low this year, it's not unprecedented.
Gerry Bonham, president of Abalon Foundation Repair, says the company is responding to an increased number of basement issues.
"I've been telling people to water about six to eight feet away from their foundation," says Bonham. "If the ground has come away from the foundation I tell them to put newspapers into the space and not soil, which will expand when it gets wet.
"Normally fall is the dry period, but the last 10 years... who knows?"
Kevin Rollason Reporter
Kevin Rollason is one of the more versatile reporters at the Winnipeg Free Press.
Whether it is covering city hall, the law courts, or general reporting, Rollason can be counted on to not only answer the 5 Ws — Who, What, When, Where and Why — but to do it in an interesting and accessible way for readers.