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'On the edge': Minnesota farmers, gardeners, cities wait to see if rain will curb worsening drought

Photos of the Mississippi River
This summer’s drought has left Mississippi River water levels near historic lows in St. Paul. It’s about 15 feet lower than at the peak of spring flooding earlier this year.
Andrew Krueger | MPR News

Drought continues to deepen across most of Minnesota this summer, and experts say the state is at a tipping point.

Widespread rain expected soon could spare the region from seeing the most serious effects of drought. But a continued dry pattern could quickly make things worse for farmers and gardeners.

Across the state, the lack of rain is already taking a toll on water levels on lakes and rivers, and on the growth of crops.

“It was the second-driest June on record, and that’s going back to 1871” in the Twin Cities, said Luigi Romolo, state climatologist with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. “We got less than an inch of precipitation here in the metro in June; that’s only happened three times. Most of the state since about mid-May, has been extremely dry. We’re seeing deficits of anywhere from 4 to 6 inches of precip since then.”

In Minnesota, nearly two-thirds of the state is considered to be in drought, with more than 11 percent in severe drought. That includes areas from the northern Twin Cities metro area, up to St. Cloud and Mille Lacs Lake.

“We’ve had the benefit of some real small pockets of rainfall that have kind of helped. But things are getting really dry out there. And should the dryness continue, we could see some significant impacts to agriculture, and further decreases in streamflow levels and lake levels,” Romolo said.

Farmers across the state are in a precarious position. Some more rain could get them through the season. But if it doesn't come soon, this drought could take a heavy toll on crop yields.

“Everybody is concerned,” said Richard Syverson, who farms corn, soybeans and alfalfa, and raises sheep, in Clontarf in west-central Minnesota.

He’s also the president of the Minnesota Corn Growers Association, which includes members from across the state.

Syverson said farmers raising ruminant animals, like cattle, goats and sheep, are having a tougher time finding grasses for grazing. He says if they have to turn to buying hay, that’ll raise their costs.

“Everyone is saying the same thing: They’re just one shower away from being out of a problem, and two or three hot sunny days away from a big problem. So we really are hanging kind of right on the edge right now,” he said.

In St. Paul, the city council will vote Wednesday on whether to allow the city’s water authority to implement restrictions on water usage — such as watering lawns on odd or even days — if levels on the Mississippi River hit a certain level. The DNR has St. Paul in the drought watch phase at the moment.

Photos of the Mississippi River
Across the state, the lack of rain is already taking a toll on crops.
Andrew Krueger | MPR News

“As the summer progresses, we’re continuing to monitor and kind of projecting within our service area, that flows within the Mississippi River, at our monitoring point, are going to hit the next stage, which is a drought warning phase,” said Patrick Shea, general manager of St. Paul Regional Water Services.

“We have a bit to go before we hit the warning phase,” Shea said. “And that would probably lead to a progression of voluntary odd-even sprinkling requirements. And then if that’s not achieving the results we want or the drought is worsening, then we would go to mandatory odd-even.”

Shea said if the city does hit the warning phase, it’ll begin cutting back its water usage, such as street sweeping, splash pads and flushes of the water system for maintenance.

There is rain possible Tuesday night into Wednesday, and again on Saturday. Whether it’s enough to start easing drought conditions remains to be seen.