Drought Conditions Worsen in Plains and Upper Midwest

Nearly half of the lower 48 is experiencing drought conditions. Follow here for the latest on extreme weather, including floods, wildfires and more.,


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The Plains and Upper Midwest are growing drier as drought deepens in the West.

Low levels of water in the Rockport reservoir in Oakley, Utah, last month.
Low levels of water in the Rockport reservoir in Oakley, Utah, last month.Credit…Lindsay D’Addato for The New York Times
  • Aug. 25, 2021, 5:00 a.m. ET

A 53-foot waterfall near St. Paul, Minn., has been reduced to a trickle. Utah’s biggest reservoirs are about half full, and dropping. Almond growers in California are abandoning their dying trees as water grows increasingly scarce.

Nearly half of the land mass of the contiguous United States — 47 percent — is experiencing drought conditions, according to the latest report from the U.S. Drought Monitor, and it’s getting worse in the Northern Plains and everywhere west of the Rocky Mountains.

The monitor, a collaboration of several federal agencies and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, ranks the severity of drought conditions from “moderate” to “exceptional,” and its latest report moved parts of Minnesota into the worst category for the first time. Eight percent of land in the state now falls under that description, and about 50 percent is in extreme drought, the next level.

Droughts are a normal part of life, especially in the American West, where they have occurred regularly throughout the centuries. But scientists say that climate change, in the form of warming temperatures and shifts in precipitation, is making the situation worse. What would be a moderate drought in a world without warming is now more severe.

For residents of St. Paul and many of its suburbs, the parched conditions mean that those who live in odd-numbered addresses are allowed to water their lawns only on odd-numbered days of the month, and those with even-numbered addresses on the even-numbered days. The watering can only take place before noon or after 6 p.m. to minimize evaporation.

Northwest of the Twin Cities, a hydroelectric dam in St. Cloud shut down production last week for the first time since 1988 because Mississippi River flows dropped. Water levels are so low that boats are in danger of scraping along river bottoms. Gov. Tim Walz said this month that Minnesota would receive $17 million in federal aid to help farmers, whose pastures have been parched this summer.

While the National Weather Service is predicting moderate to heavy rain this week from Utah into the northern Great Plains and western Minnesota, flooding rains in Utah last week and over the summer have not been enough to relieve drought conditions there.

That’s because a deluge of rain over a small area for a short time doesn’t sink into soil, where it can be absorbed by plants or drip down into aquifers. Instead, it can lead to mudslides. “Utah’s reservoirs are very unlikely to see substantial gains until next spring’s runoff,” according to the latest monthly water report from the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

The drought is even more dire in California, which produces one-third of the country’s supply of vegetables and two-thirds of its fruit. Nearly half of the state is in “exceptional” drought, up from one-third of the state in July.

California is especially prolific in almonds, producing 80 percent of the world’s supply. But federal and state officials have cut water allocations, forcing farmers to switch crops or abandon some orchards. The U.S. Agriculture Department estimated in July that this year’s almond crop will be 10 percent below that of last year, lower than its previous forecast in May.

The drought is also priming the state for dangerous wildfire conditions. This week, as many as 13,000 firefighters were battling 13 large wildfires that have burned more than 1.54 million acres across the state, according to Cal Fire, the state’s firefighting agency.

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