A flock of geese gathers on the frozen Mississippi River near downtown Little Falls. The river's coating of ice cracks and shifts as it's warmed by the December sun. This winter scene hides the fact that water levels on the Mississippi, and most of the other rivers and lakes in Minnesota, are down because of drought.
Upstream near a dam the signs of drought are easy to find. Minnesota Department of Natural Resources hydrologist Tim Crocker scrambles down a boulder-strewn riverbank and stands on rock that would normally be under water.
"Often times there's people fishing off the top of the railing there, down into this area here," Crocker says.
The dry, rocky river bottom is definitely not a fishing hole now. That's because the nearby spillway, by Mississippi River standards, produces only a feeble trickle of water. It fills a small portion of the river's natural course.
Data from a river gauge downstream provides further proof of drought. It shows the Mississippi's flow is about half of what it should be this time of year. It's a lasting reminder of a dry spell that started early last summer.
A dry fall was no help according to assistant state climatologist Greg Spoden. Minnesota usually gets widespread soaking rains in September and October that recharge the soil with moisture before it freezes. But Spoden says this fall most of the state didn't get that needed rain.
"Nearly nil in some places, and very short of the historical average in most places. So we're going to be more reliant than usual on early spring rains once the soils thaw again and are more receptive to moisture," Spoden said.
Spoden doesn't expect winter snows to help the drought. Snow doesn't contain much moisture and when it melts in the spring it runs off too quickly to be soaked up by the soil. Here's another problem; a lack of snow means no insulation for the soil. Spoden say that means frost levels will likely go deeper this winter, especially if Minnesota faces a cold snap.
"A deeply frozen ground is less receptive to infiltration. So we'll even have to go deeper into the spring before the soil will be open to infiltrating water," Spoden said.
A lack of adequate soil moisture in the spring is a big concern for farmers. This summer's drought already meant a less than perfect fall harvest in some spots and shortages of hay for other farmers' livestock.
Dan Martens is a state extension educator in central Minnesota's Benton County. Since farmers have been through droughts before, Martens knows they're spending this winter planning for a dry spring.
"I think people just need to look at their farms and how susceptible they are to drought, and think of some of those management practices that can help them hedge against that a bit," Martens says.
That means farmers could consider growing more small grains next year like oats, barley and rye, which mature faster and don't require as much water. Plus Martens says it's a good time to look into crop insurance just in case the drought continues into next summer.
DNR hydrologist Tim Crocker understands why people get nervous about the potential for continued drought, but he says it's not all bad news. Crocker contends that after extremely wet conditions over the last 15 years this is nature's way of balancing things out.
"If we can keep that in mind, it may help us get through. It does make difficult at times for our land owners and property owners, but there is a benefit," Crocker said.
Look closely and you can see those benefits already. Crocker said new plants are taking hold on the edges of wetlands, lakes and rivers after being drowned out for years by high water.