Outlook bleak for avoiding drought
ST. PAUL - Snowmobiling, skiing and shoveling have been rare across Minnesota in recent months, an omen of things to come.
With snow depths in northern Minnesota at near record lows going into the weekend storm and severe or extreme drought conditions in many locations, state and federal officials are preparing for a dry spring and summer that could be unlike anything the state has experienced in more than 30 years.
Among their concerns are:
-- Soil that last growing season was too dry could become even drier, hampering crop production and reducing livestock grazing opportunities.
-- An "explosive" wildfire season that starts early and lasts longer than usual.
-- Streams and aquifers dropping so much that water use throughout the state may need to be limited, including forbidding watering lawns.
-- Lakes dropping so low that access may be a problem.
-- Already-stressed forests becoming so dry that trees will be more vulnerable to pests.
And despite weekend snow, the outlook is bleak. Steve Buan of the National Weather Service said there is less than a 10 percent chance of enough precipitation through May to significantly ease the drought.
Far above normal snow and rain is needed to prevent a deepening drought, Buan and other weather experts said.
Most of the northern half of the state is in what the weather service calls an extreme or severe drought. The rest of the state, except for the southwestern and southeastern tips, are in an abnormally dry condition.
"This drought is highly likely to persist through May," Buan predicted.
Forecasters don't look much beyond that when it comes to precipitation predictions.
The drought began last summer and fueled wildfires and hurt Minnesota's crop production. Late-season rains saved many crops.
"That subsoil moisture is not going to be there this time," Rep. Kent Eken, DFL-Twin Valley, said.
Agriculture officials say soil moisture is at seriously low levels because last year's crops drank all that was available and even in the southern half of the state that has received some rain and snow, soil is dry.
A task force met on Thursday to discuss the situation, but Kent Lokkesmoe of the Department of Natural Resources said there is little that can be done this early.
However, Ron Stoffel is doing something. The Department of Natural Resources wildfire suppression supervisor is talking to the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, about his expectation to need assistance earlier in the season than normal. He also is in touch with other states' fire agencies to let them know that after nine months of drought he expects forest and other fires.
Northern Minnesota - from east to west - is considered in some of the worst danger for wildfires of anyplace in the country.
"Receiving even average rain between now and May isn't going to help us a lot," Stoffel said. "Our season will start earlier and last longer."
Fires could begin before ice melts off lakes, which would post a problem.
"They will have a hard time finding dip sites," he said.
Airplanes and helicopters used for fighting fires usually pick up water from open water, so Stoffel fears that the time needed to refill buckets could balloon from five minutes to an hour if aircraft must land to refill.
Stoffel expects officials to significantly limit Minnesotans' permission to start fires as spring approaches.
In the meantime, National Guard officials are looking at the manpower and aircraft they will have available to help fight fires. A Cambridge-based unit has been trained to fight fires.
Others warn that many Minnesota communities may be forced to curtail lawn watering because aquifers used to provide their water will be short.
Lokkesmoe said all cities of 1,000 or more population have written guidelines about how to handle water shortages. In extreme instances, the state can step in and make those decisions.
Legislators say they know the situation is serious, but see little they can do.
"I don't know what we could do - demand that God provide rain?" Rep. Larry Howes, R-Walker, joked.
But lawmakers are serious about the issue. They and their neighbors are being affected by the drought.
"We are worried about septic systems freezing - and they are," Rep. Tom Rukavina, DFL-Virginia, said. "It's a scary thing."
City water mains also have been springing leaks because snow normally provides insulation to keep them warm.
Howes, Rukavina and several members of the drought task force recommend that officials begin warning people now to conserve water.
The two lawmakers and some on the task force warn that even the Twin Cities, where the drought is not as bad as further north, will have problems because lakes that feed aquifers are dropping.
Lake Superior, for example, is lower than any time since 1926.
Experts paint a bleak picture for the next few months, but Lokkesmoe doesn't want to overly worry Minnesotans.
"We aren't crying wolf," he said. "It is too early for that."