Winter snows eased but didn't end Minnesota's drought

Abundant spring rain, snow still needed to make up the deficit

Snow water equivalent
Liquid water equivalent in the snow cover across Minnesota
Twin Cities National Weather Service office

There’s water hiding in that snow cover outside your window.

Snow cover at the Weather Lab
Snow cover at the Weather Lab in February 2023
Paul Huttner | MPR News

Snow cover is extensive across our region this winter. Our barrage of wet winter storms in December and January has left a significant amount of water in the snow. Hydrologists call that embedded moisture “snow water equivalent.”

The map above shows the amount of water in the snow cover across Minnesota. You can see there are around 2 inches of water in the snow cover in the Twin Cities. But a swath of more than 3 inches rings the Twin Cities from around Glencoe to Willmar to St. Cloud to Hinckley.

There are about 4 inches of water in the snowpack in the Mississippi headwaters region around Bemidji. So there’s the equivalent of 2 to 4 inches of rain in that snow cover waiting to melt across most of Minnesota this spring.

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Where that water eventually goes depends on how quickly it melts in spring. Most of it will run off into rivers, lakes, and ponds. Some of it will soak into soils under the snowpack. A slower melt will allow more water to soak into the soil. Some will evaporate into the atmosphere.

Drought lingers

The recent heavy precipitation has eased but not erased drought across southern Minnesota. Moderate to severe drought lingers from the Twin Cities south and westward.

U.S. Drought Monitor for Minnesota
U.S. Drought Monitor for Minnesota
University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Our precipitation deficit last year was around 10 inches in the Twin Cities area heading into late fall. Much of our region received less than half of the average precipitation last fall.

Precipitation departure from average
Precipitation departure from average in fall 2022
Midwest Regional Climate Center

We made up some of that deficit, but we’re still several inches behind average precipitation over the past year.

So it’s going to take more snow, and especially abundant spring rainfall to recharge soils, rivers, and lakes across Minnesota.

Right now, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s outlooks slightly favor above-average precipitation over the next 90 days for eastern and northern Minnesota and average precipitation elsewhere.

NOAA 90 Day precipitation outlook
90-day precipitation outlook

So unless Minnesota records a wet spring, the drought story will likely continue. Many areas will need an excess of 2 to 5 inches of precipitation above average this spring to erase drought.

Stay tuned.