MN Braces for Far-Reaching, "Devastating" Impact of Drought

By KBJR News 1

February 27, 2013 Updated Feb 28, 2013 at 8:45 PM CDT

Duluth, MN (NNCNOW.com) - Currently, 70% of the state's landscape is considered to be in extreme or severe drought--a trend that has only increased over the past three months.

Much of this has to deal with soil moisture levels, which, as of October 31st, have been reported as being inadequate for almost 90% of Minnesota. According to the DNR, the current drought has been the product of three abnormally dry seasons since August of 2011.

Virtually every aspect of Minnesota's way of life is set to be affected, and in certain cases it will take much more than a good few rains to get us out of the problem.

Dairy farmer Duane Laveau's family–owned farm sits just outside the Fond du Lac neighborhood in West Duluth. It's a 7 day–a–week job, says Laveau, and the success of each season depends almost entirely on the last.

Currently, the daily routine revolves around cleaning, milking, and feeding their dozens of cattle. But, the feeding aspect wouldn't be possible without a strong summer growing season.

Laveau grows about 90% of what they feed their animals: "I put up about 450 tons of corn... and 450 tons of hay leech, and a couple hundred tons of dry hay every year. If we had to buy it, I don't know if we could survive," said Laveau as he fed his cattle.

Laveau says these days crop insurance is a part of life in case of a natural disaster, like drought. Laveau says he clearly remembers the dry years of the mid–eighties.

"It was a challenge just trying to buy hay—find enough hay in the county—to feed our animals," said Laveau.

While Laveau says he's concerned about current and predicted state drought patterns affecting his crop, Trade Development Director Ron Johnson at the Duluth Seaway Port Authority says his concerns with crop production are on a massive economic scale.

The port, which relies significantly on exports of spring and durum wheat, already faces the issue of low lake levels, which means ships already need to reduce their loads, impacting income. If the drought continues to impact grain and wheat production, Europe could basically cut the U.S. out of the export market by sticking to its own supplies.

"Then we are less competitive in the world market, which is very competitive right now. There's plenty of wheat around [in Europe]—we're quite a distance from the market," said Johnson.

The drought also raises concerns about fire danger.

At the Minnesota Interagency Fire Center, in Grand Rapids, DNR Wildfire Suppression Supervisor Ron Stoffel says Pine County is still sitting on acres of fuel in the form of fallen trees from a 2011 wind storm.

"We've beefed up some equipment and crews in the Pine Co. area on our side, and the WI DNR has done the same thing," said Stoffel, as he stared down walls of fire fighting equipment.

Stoffel says the snowfall doesn't do much to saturate the now frozen fuel, which usually happens in the fall. Come March, that fuel will be available "almost right away, just a short period after the snow leaves," said Stoffel.

Even when the snow melts, the frozen ground isn't going to let the soil soak it up, and most of the water will simply run off.

"It'll recharge some of the swamps... and streams, but it really isn't going to do a whole lot for ground moisture," said Stoffel.

And drought or no drought, according to state Hydrologist Andrew Streitz, that's where the real problem lies. Typically, most of the ground water recharging takes place in the fall.

"That's when plants stop taking up water. It's when the solar radiation is less, so we don't have as much evaporation," said Streitz, "but, we didn't get the rainfall in the fall throughout Minnesota, so we didn't get the recharge to the soil column. They're looking at soil moisture and saying, 'we're in big trouble.'"

And other factors are only exacerbating the drought's impact.

According to Streitz, around 50% of state farms are using perforated drain tiles to speed water off the land and into their irrigation systems.

"The problem is that's how recharge happens. Water sits on a field and then slowly infiltrates [the ground]. If you rush it off, yes, you're going to be able to get your crop in early. But, later on when you want that water for the plants, it may not be there," said Streitz.

...a problem that only grows with the need to grow our nation's food.

If you'd like to learn more about the far–reaching impacts of the drought, or track it using regularly updated drought maps, CHECK THIS LINK OUT

- Posted to the Web by Billy Wagness