Dry weather worries parts of region

Dry grass
This lawn area near Lake Okabena in Worthington has suffered in the drought.
MPR photo/Mark Steil

A broad area of Minnesota needs rain. Soon. Corn plants are pollinating. Dry weather hurts the process, which determines how many kernels grow on each ear.

The dry spell is doubly bad news for many farmers because grain prices are also dropping.

Dean Christopherson
Dean Christopherson farms near Worthington. He has about 90 milk cows.
MPR photo/Mark Steil

Dust kicks up from the shoes of Dean Christopherson as he walks along the driveway of his dairy farm near Worthington. He says it's been a frustrating week.

"We've seen lightning and we've heard a little thunder and we've seen some clouds, but they've gone by to the north of us and to the east of us," says Christopherson. "We got a couple sprinkles one day, but otherwise we've gotten no rain for the last, basically close to 30 days."

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Christopherson bends and stares down at the dirt. He says he can still see the dimples the scattered raindrops printed in the dust. He looks up and sees a more hopeful sign.

"Today it's a little bit cloudy, and it was real sunny, it's just a little blue out. Feels a lot better than it did an hour ago and I hope that maybe the rain will come this way today," says Christopherson.

This week's crop report showed many Minnesota farmers are hoping for rain. About two-thirds of the state's farmland is short or very short of soil moisture.

Corn ears
This is pollination time for the corn crop. Pollen falls from the top tassels onto the ear silks. Dry weather can hurt the process, reducing the number of kernels per ear.
MPR photo/Mark Steil

Chrisopherson points to a nearby cornfield. Most of the stalks are a deep, rich green, but some have faded to a a yellowish-green. He says it's a sign that the drought has reduced the crop's yield potential.

"Every day this week I think we've lost a certain percentage, I'm not sure how much," says Christopherson. "But I'm sure that we've lost our potential for the bumper crop anyhow."

Christopherson farms just a mile north of the Iowa border. His land is part of a moderate drought area that covers a good part of southern and eastern Minnesota. What's especially upsetting about the weather is that it comes as grain prices decline.

"It's always a worry to see your crop drying up and getting less yield, and then getting a lower price at the same time," says Christopherson.

Corn and soybean prices have fallen almost 10 percent in the last week. The price drop came because of beneficial rains in many parts of the corn belt. Dry areas in Ohio and Indiana have received rain. Even some parts of southern Minnesota got rain this week.

Later in the afternoon Christopherson got his wish fulfilled. A deluge dropped almost an inch of rain on his fields. He says he could still see at least an average yield if the drought breaks.

Hot and dry weather make it tough for officials whose job it is to conserve water.

Sioux Falls officials say this summer consumers are using nearly triple the amount of water every day than they use in the winter. Most of that water is going on lawns. Officials are looking for new ways to keep the grass green and still have plenty of water.

It's been said before that Sioux Falls could run out of water by the year 2012 unless consumers conserve water.

A federally funded pipeline to bring Missouri River water to Sioux Falls and other communities is under way. But lack of funding has delayed that project for at least eight years. So officials are working on new ways to conserve water.

Kevin Smith, assistant manager of the city's public works department, says he remembers the late '70s when the Big Sioux River ran dry.

"And it was dry 270 consecutive days. That's three-quarters of the year with zero flow in the river," says Smith.

The Big Sioux River is the drinking water source for the city of Sioux Falls. Kevin Smith says people have to stop watering lawns -- it's wasteful.

He encourages people to change their shower heads to a low flow spray, and he promotes the city's rebate program for water efficient toilets and washing machines. There's even a rebate for sprinkler sensors to keep people from watering lawns during a rain shower.

"What we want people to understand is we want to be proactive," he says. "We don't want to wait until there's no water to start the dialog over water conservation measures. Then you're not making decisions looking toward the future, you're making decisions based on the here and now. And I'm not sure that's always the best thing."

Smith says the city has joined a new online water conservation network, which shares information between communities on how to conserve water. He says San Antonio, Texas, for example, is promoting a new toilet that uses less than a gallon of water per flush.

Sioux Falls is partnering with South Dakota State University to study lawn watering habits and how new technology can conserve water. Details of the study are still being worked out.

Kevin Smith says none of the conservation efforts will work unless everyone does it. He says neighbors with brown grass are starting to report those with green grass for violating the city's water restrictions. Some 200 warnings have been given so far this summer.