West central Minnesota experiencing moderate drought, keeping eye on dropping water levels

Stream flows and lake levels are well below the seasonal normal as the dry and hot weather continues to stress crops throughout the region. The area is officially in a moderate drought but not yet seeing the problems as experienced during the last dry spell in 2012-13.

Minimal water flows through the dam at the Mill Pond in New London. Erica Dischino / West Central Tribune

SPICER — Crops are stressed, and communities throughout west central Minnesota are urging residents to conserve water by not watering their lawns.

In New London , workers this past week opened a low-water bypass on the Mill Pond dam to assure a flow of water on the Crow River and prevent fish kills. The current dam was built in 2011, and this is only the second time the low-water bypass has been needed, according to Ethan Jenzen, hydrologist with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources in Spicer.

Jenzen is monitoring surface and groundwater conditions in the area. At this point, he has not been receiving calls about well interference issues due to the dry conditions. He said Willmar has been closely monitoring levels in its groundwater resource and has not seen any significant changes at this point.

There are some problem areas showing up in the state, according to the Minnesota State Climatology Office . It reports lower water levels in a cluster of wells in portions of Stevens and Pope counties, as well as Pipestone and Rock counties.


Ethan Jenzen speaks during a presentation on the Bonanza Valley Groundwater Management Area in August 2018. He is a hydrologist with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources in Spicer. West Central Tribune file photo

With all of this in mind, Jenzen said this is the time to be proactive and encourage water conservation. “If we can conserve on the front end, we hopefully won’t have to recover as long on the back end.”

Even with the hoped for rain that is forecast Sunday, the area is experiencing a significant moisture deficit. It will require time to recover in terms of moisture for crops and recharging aquifers, he said.

With the exception of an eastern sliver of Meeker County, every county in west central Minnesota is now officially experiencing a moderate drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor . About 60 percent of the state is experiencing a moderate drought.

Kandiyohi County has recorded its 12th driest May in 127 years of record-keeping, and this June is on track to be one of the driest ever: Precipitation levels currently are 1.79 inches below normal for the month in Kandiyohi County, according to the Drought Monitor.

The area recorded nine consecutive days with 90-degree-plus temperatures in June, the longest stretch of 90-degree days in June since 1933. The hot temperatures have served to accelerate evaporation, which is evident in dropping lake levels throughout the area. “Unseasonably low” is how the hydrologist described area lake levels.

Streams and rivers are running well below seasonal normals as well. Flows on the Crow, Chippewa and other area waterways are on the “very low end of normal,” according to Jenzen.


The graph from the DNR Climatology Working Group shows the historical fluctuations between above and below normal flows on the Crow River. (Courtesy of DNR Climatology Working Group)

To date, no fish kills directly attributed to the warm temperatures have been reported in the area, according to Dave Coahran, fisheries supervisor with the DNR in Spicer . His staff responded to the die-off of an estimated 700 to 1,000 fish on Lake Calhoun, mainly sunfish, crappies and bullhead. The fish were too badly decomposed for analysis, but the die-off is believed to have been caused by Columaris, he said. The bacterium is naturally found in lakes.

The current situation does yet match the moisture deficits or problems experienced in 2012-13 or 1988, according to Jenzen. In 2012-13, Jenzen said there were some localized well interference problems, but no widespread issues.

Residential water use has priority when it comes to water allocation, and many communities in the area have been working with the DNR on comprehensive water management programs to assure an adequate supply during dry periods. Irrigators in the Bonanza Valley, which includes parts of Kandiyohi, Pope, Meeker and Stearns County, are part of a groundwater management area. It has made possible a comprehensive monitoring program to track water levels in aquifers, Jenzen said.

He said the area has seen the number of groundwater permits issued continue to grow in recent years, but he said that does not necessarily mean groundwater use has increased. The region has made significant progress in recent years in more effective use of water, he said.

The hydrologist said that drought is part of the natural climate cycle, but he also pointed out that there have been some major swings in weather in recent years. In 2014, lake levels were high enough to overtop some of the gauges. And as recent as 2019, eastern Meeker County was reporting precipitation totals just shy of historic records.

“We’ve gone from extremely high water levels to low water levels in just a two-year span. Quite a swing,” said Jenzen. “It’d be nice to spend some time in the middle.”


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