Businesses and boaters pinched by low river levels in Minn.

Wading in the Minnesota
North Mankato resident Mark Bosacker wades into the middle of the main channel of the Minnesota River in downtown Mankato on Tuesday, Sept. 18, 2012.
MPR Photo/Mark Steil

MANKATO, Minn. -- The drought has pushed river levels in some parts of Minnesota to near record lows, forcing the state Department of Natural Resources to suspend water pumping permits for dozens of businesses and other users.

Falling river levels also have transformed many streams, including the Minnesota River, which is dramatically low near Mankato, with a daily flow of 265 cubic feet per second, about a third of what it should be this time of year.

At about 1 foot, the water level is the third-lowest on record. Normally the river might be 10 feet deep in spots, and the length of a football field or more across. But near downtown Mankato, the river is now more sand than stream.

That troubles North Mankato resident Mark Bosacker, who for years has canoed, kayaked and hiked the waters. On a recent visit to the mostly dry segment of the Minnesota, he pointed what the receding waters have uncovered: piles of rocks and assorted debris.

"Ten speed I'd say," Bosacker said of one find. "No, no, five- or three-speed bicycle." Bosacker trudged over sand, mud and rocks that are normally submerged before reaching what's left of the Minnesota River's main channel.

Nearby, solid concrete flood walls were warm and dry in the sun. At the spot where the drought has reduced the span of one of Minnesota's biggest rivers to little more than the length of a school bus, he wondered how deep the water is.

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Wading into the stream, Bosacker discovered that even though the river is much reduced, it was still powerful. About halfway across the channel, the water was nearly 3 feet deep but with a strong enough current to make him unsteady on his feet, so he turned back to shore.

The low levels of the Minnesota and other rivers in the area have reduced recreational use of the streams, practically drying Bosacker's favorite whitewater canoeing rivers.

Businesses across the state are also feeling the effects of low water. Some golf courses, tree nurseries, sod growing companies and others have had to stop pumping water from river watersheds because stream levels are too low. In northeast Minnesota, where three months ago the St. Louis River caused a major flood, United Taconite now has to make changes to deal with the shrinking stream.

Low Minnesota River
Many rivers in Minnesota are approaching record low levels as the drought continues. The Minnesota River in downtown Mankato had more sand than water in a photo from Tuesday, Sept. 18, 2012.
MPR Photo/Mark Steil

"We worked out a contingency plan with the DNR, that will allow us to continue to operate United Taconite normally," company spokeswoman Sandy Karnowski said.

Karnowski said operations owned by Cliffs Natural Resources will pump water from an inactive mine pit into the St. Louis River basin to replace what it uses from the watershed.

Rivers in most of Minnesota are low. In the southern part of the state the Blue Earth River at Mankato is even lower than the Minnesota, National Weather Service Hydrologist Steve Buan said.

"Hasn't seen it this low in September since 1958," he said.

Measured in cubic feet per second, the Blue Earth is at about one-seventh its normal flow, Buan said.

This is the second September in a row of low stream levels. Last year drought also cut flow rates.

"We set some lows last fall, and then the rivers rebounded into the winter and then obviously with the spring rains," Buan said. "But now that the rains have shut off again, the rivers have dropped quicker than they did last year."

Maple River
This weather monitoring station on a bridge over the Maple River near Mankato hasn't measured much rainfall in recent months in a photo from Tuesday, Sept. 18, 2012.
MPR Photo/Mark Steil

Buan said that points to ongoing dry soils. He said despite widespread heavy rains last spring, subsoil moisture never recovered from last year's drought. As a result, the soil retained most of the rain that fell this year, leaving little to flow into the rivers.

But the conditions are not too bad to discourage anglers.

James Martens, who went fishing in the Minnesota River near Mankato, said he has never seen such sharp drops in river levels.

"Hopefully this is just a one-year thing, and we'll get back to where we were, normal levels, in the next few years," said Martens, of Mankato.

For now at least, anything close to normal river levels appears to be a long way off because only dry weather is in the forecast.