Iowa Needs To Brace For Second Year Of Drought

Iowa Farm Scene

Conditions remain dry in early 2013 in much of Iowa; northwest quarter is rated as "extreme drought.

Published on: February 8, 2013

About 90% of Iowa's topsoil and subsoil is still in the "short of moisture" category, despite some January precipitation. The weather summary for the first month of 2013, released February 5 by Harry Hillaker, state climatologist at the Iowa Department of Agriculture, shows slightly less than 1 inch of precipitation fell in January in terms of a statewide average. It came as 3.6 inches of snow and some rain.

January's 0.96 inches of rain was .04 inch above normal, says Hillaker. The statewide average snowfall of 3.6 inches was 4.1 inches below normal. This was the lowest January snow total since 2006 and ranks 19th lowest for the month in 126 years of record keeping. Hillaker says: "Snow totals in January varied from only a trace at Swea City to 10 inches at Guttenberg. Monthly precipitation totals were above normal across eastern Iowa and well below normal over northwest Iowa. Totals varied from 0.14 inch at Castana to 2.75 inches at Le Claire."

DROUGHT CONTINUES: Iowa received some unexpected heavy rain in late January, but it fell on frozen ground and did little to recharge the dry soil moisture supply. Iowa soils generally freeze up by mid-December and dont get moisture-friendly thaws until mid-to-late March. Currently, 90% of Iowas topsoil and subsoil are rated "short" of moisture. Driest part of the state is northwest quarter of Iowa. Its rated as being in "extreme drought" condition.
DROUGHT CONTINUES: Iowa received some unexpected heavy rain in late January, but it fell on frozen ground and did little to recharge the dry soil moisture supply. Iowa soils generally freeze up by mid-December and don't get moisture-friendly thaws until mid-to-late March. Currently, 90% of Iowa's topsoil and subsoil are rated "short" of moisture. Driest part of the state is northwest quarter of Iowa. It's rated as being in "extreme drought" condition.

About 90% of Iowa's topsoil and subsoil are now rated as "short" of moisture
Iowa received some unexpected heavy rain in late January, but it fell on frozen ground and did little to improve soil moisture content. Iowa's soils generally freeze up by mid-December and don't get "moisture soaks in" thaws until mid-March or late March. As a result, 90% of Iowa's topsoil and subsoil is now rated "short" of moisture. Driest part of the state is northwest quarter of Iowa. It's rated as being in a condition of "extreme drought," notes Hillaker.

In 2012 Iowa had the worst drought since the mid-1950s, with precipitation averaging little more than 20 inches compared with a normal statewide average of 35 inches.  Unless heavy rains come in March and April after soil thaws, Iowa farmers will plant into soils that are running a moisture deficit for the second year in a row. That would stress the state's crop production capability more than the last major drought to hit the state, which was in 1988. That year was followed immediately by above-average precipitation in 1989. Rainfall was normal-to-high in subsequent years as that rainy period of weather ended with the historic flooding which hit the state in 1993.

Think of drought as "slow motion disaster"  -- Iowa may not emerge from drought for three more years
The head of Iowa State University Extension says state officials should consider a "public awareness campaign" to prepare Iowans for water shortages this summer. "Unlike something like a hurricane or the floods that we're used to in Iowa, a drought is a really different kind of disaster. I think of it as a super slow motion disaster," says Cathann Kress, vice president for Extension and Outreach at Iowa State University. "It happens over a really long period of time. Other new events start to take the headlines and people begin to forget about the drought really quickly."

If conditions continue as weather forecasters predict, Iowa will not emerge from the drought for three more years, according to Kress. "It's easy for us to have one rain and then assume that the drought is over," she says. She cites the latest information and observations from ISU Extension climatologist Elwynn Taylor and forecasts of other weather experts, too.

The general public needs to know what "response triggers" will be used by public officials who have the authority to order water rationing, she told a meeting of Iowa legislators at the State Capitol in Des Moines last week. "I think there will need to be more of a public awareness campaign so more of our citizens understand the potential impacts of a second year of drought in our state," says Kress.

Iowa farmers will have to deal with some significant issues this coming summer
Iowa State University Extension has begun offering advice to dozens of Iowa businesses already preparing for water shortages this coming summer. Kress made her comments January 30 during testimony before an Iowa House committee. She told lawmakers Iowa farmers will have to deal with some significant issues this coming summer. That warning applies to both crop and livestock farmers.

"Besides the income loss for farmers that most of us can readily identify, we also anticipate that there will be a decrease in crop quality – what crop we do get – and an increase in insect and disease susceptibility," says Kress. "And we anticipate there will be an increase in wildlife damage to crops, obviously, as deer and other wildlife are looking for more food as well."

In addition to anticipated crop problems related to continued drought, Kress speculates that it's likely to be "another tough year" for livestock producers, too. She predicts that water quality issues will affect private wells and rural water systems this summer as water levels fall.

"One of the things that we are hearing a lot in the southern part of the state, probably because of the soil type there, is the impact on homeowners not just with their wells, but the potential cracking of foundations and separation from the surrounding soil is starting to become an issue in some of the counties in the southern half of the state," says Kress.

Water use by Iowans could be curtailed if drought continues to persist in 2013
Water usage could be curtailed if drought conditions, which are severe in some areas of the state of Iowa and other western Corn Belt areas, worsen later this year. That warning is from Chuck Gipp, director of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources.

A "Hydrology Working Group" formed by his agency and other agencies of the government is monitoring water supplies in the state. "We'll have to watch that and caution people about water usage when the time comes," says Gipp. He says his goal in addressing lawmakers at the State Capitol in Des Moines about this situation is not to scare the legislators or the public, "but, we want to caution people that we are still in the middle of a drought and we have rivers and streams running way below their normal flow in Iowa this winter."

He says DNR also found language in the Iowa Code that makes a recommendation about which water users would get cut off first, if supplies run out in some places in the state. The first to be cut in that protocol is out-of-state water users, such as people in northern Missouri who are getting water from the large southern Iowa rural water system that draws from Lake Rathbun. Next on the list would be lesser priority users such as crops and then livestock. And obviously the last entity to get cut off would be commercial and household users of water.