Despite widespread severe drought across the state, Minnesota cities won't have to cut water use further, at least for now.
The state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) said Thursday that it wants to see if rain forecast for this weekend provides any relief before moving Minnesota from a "warning" phase into the more dire "restrictive" phase that would demand more extreme reductions in water use.
Minnesota experienced worse drought conditions in 1988 and the 1930s, state climatologist Luigi Romolo told reporters after the second meeting of the Minnesota Drought Task Force on Thursday.
"This isn't a worst-case scenario by any means," Romolo said.
But it's bad.
About three-quarters of Minnesota is experiencing severe drought with nearly one-quarter now hardened into "extreme" drought. The lack of rain is stunting crops, frying pastures, lowering lake levels and exposing riverbeds. Municipal water suppliers have been busy, too, coaxing citizens to cut back on water use.
Those efforts, so far at least, have been largely successful, as many cities have seen water use decline in recent weeks, task force members said.
Rick Wahlen, Eden Prairie community water supply manager, told the group he's seeing "a much lower use of water." The city has issued about 80 citations in the past few weeks, he said.
Wahlen said he's pleased with the conservation efforts, adding that the city is "watching it very closely."
Other task force members shared other water conservation actions being taken. Prescribed burns have been called off, for example, and permits for pumping water from lakes and rivers are being suspended, with some streams so low researchers simply can't monitor water quality.
The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency issued a new air quality alert Thursday for northwestern, northern and west-central Minnesota until 9 p.m. Friday.
The DNR, meanwhile, has been handling an influx of "out of water" and well interference complaints as the drought stresses aquifers.
Jeff Berg, water policy specialist at the state Department of Agriculture, said the drought was the top issue at the annual Minnesota Farmfest in Redwood County, which ended Thursday. Corn and soybean crops are still in "fair" shape but trending downward, he said, with some corn being harvested early for silage. Emergency haying and foraging is widespread.
In an effort to help, the agency has created a drought resources page for Minnesota farmers.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has declared 48 Minnesota counties disaster areas because of the drought, making farmers in those counties eligible for emergency low-interest loans. Farmers also may be eligible for the Livestock Forage Disaster Program, which pays farmers for the loss of grazing acres, and the Emergency Assistance for Livestock, Honey Bees, and Farm-raised Fish Program.
To help livestock owners, most counties have opened up conservation lands for emergency haying and grazing.
One measure under scrutiny is Mississippi River flow.
According to the state's drought plan, if the average daily flow of the river at Anoka is at or below 1,500 cubic feet per second for five straight days, it can trigger a "restrictive" phase for public water suppliers that rely on the river, meaning even greater water reductions. The Mississippi has just dipped below that threshold.
And there's scant relief in sight.
August is shaping up to be drier than normal, too, said National Weather Service meteorologist Caleb Grunzke. Grunzke said scattered rain expected Friday and this weekend should help, but it won't provide enough relief.
"They wouldn't be game changers," Grunzke said.
For that to happen, he added, the state would need 5 to 6 inches of rain.
Jennifer Bjorhus • 612-673-4683