REGINA - Farmers and climate watchers fear storm clouds could be on the horizon for rural regions as Environment Canada cuts hundreds of jobs.

The department recently said 776 positions are on the chopping block across the country. Biologists, chemists, meteorologists, computer scientists, engineers and communications staff are among those affected.

"I think it's a sad day for Prairie farmers if we do see cutbacks and reduction in service," said Greg Marshall, president of the Agricultural Producers Association of Saskatchewan.

"We've been calling on the government to enhance weather surveillance and forecasting capabilities. Do these budget cutbacks mean less service? I certainly hope not."

Marshall said farmers need reliable data on wind speed and direction, rainfall and snowfall to plan things such as herbicide spraying. Producers also need weather information to manage livestock.

"It's a huge concern. Farmers' livings revolve around weather and weather forecasting. And we need accurate and immediate information all of the time, year round, so it's very, very important to farmers."

Environment Canada also monitors rural water issues.

Prof. John Pomeroy, the Canada Research Chair in Water Resources and Climate Change at the University of Saskatchewan, said a big concern in the Prairies is runoff from drained farmland and irrigation return flows.

He noted that Lake Diefenbaker, a major reservoir along the South Saskatchewan River, is green due to algae, which is feeding on nutrients from agricultural runoff in a very wet year.

"It's just one example of a dramatic change that's occurring," said Pomeroy.

"We're losing people in Western Canada, water-quality specialists, right at the time when some really severe problems are hitting and it's just terrible timing."

Pomeroy, who was a water scientist with Environment Canada from 1989 to 2000, also worries about the agency's ability to manage streamflow measurements.

"All the flooding down in southeast Saskatchewan, southern Manitoba this year and elsewhere in the Prairies, the information came from those streamflow gauges," he said. "It was Environment Canada technicians and scientists who were getting the information in a timely manner so they could decide how high the dikes should be built and how to manage the flows in the various dams and reservoirs."

Environment Canada has tried to reassure people about its services.

"I can't hammer it home enough that our key objectives have not changed," said spokesman Mark Johnson.

"We're committed to providing Canadians with an environment that's clean, safe and sustainable. And we are just making sure we are focusing our spending and using our existing resources to their best advantage while we maintain our core services. We're just adjusting how we work, how we will continue to work to be as efficient, as effective as possible."

Environment Canada says many people could be shuffled to other jobs. It says of those 776, approximately 300 positions will be eliminated.

Fifty eight of 770 workers in the Prairies/Northern region got letters saying their positions are affected. Johnson said the "workforce adjustment process" is still underway and could not say what the number of actual eliminated positions will be in the region.

The numbers worry Saskatchewan-based Greg Johnson, a professional storm chaser.

"If that's the case, then I really do fear for public safety. There's no question about it," he said.

Greg Johnson said there is already a void in Environment Canada's system as there are just two weather offices in the region -- one in Edmonton and one in Winnipeg. The same geographic area in the United States is covered by 75 National Weather Service offices, he said.

The storm chaser said the cuts go against calls from those in the meteorological community who want more resources for Environment Canada.

"There's already a feeling that they're understaffed, undermanned, underfunded and they're falling behind when it comes to technology."

Pomeroy believes those who remain in the department will work harder, but he also said the cuts will inevitably lead to less scientific information or information that "may not be the high quality that it has been in the past."

The professor said all Canadians will eventually be affected.

"I think the rural people will see it first because they're living on the land and ... either ... farming or forestry or fishery will be impacted first.

"But eventually the cities will see this as well when Wascana Creek (in Regina) floods or there's a severe rainstorm event that isn't forecasted correctly that causes local flooding ... or a tornado warning that doesn't go out right. And that's what happens as you lose people."