Entire channels of the Mississippi River are caked dry. Rocks, riverbeds and islands of the St. Croix and Minnesota rivers are visible for the first time in decades. Dozens of streams are at their lowest recorded levels since at least 1988, or even the Dust Bowl.
On Wednesday, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) put much of the state in a "restricted phase" as the drought continues to get worse. That means water utilities and suppliers will need to cut down the total amount of water used to no more than 25% above what they used in January.
Parts of Minnesota have even slipped into the most severe level — "exceptional drought" — for the first time since the U.S. Drought Monitor began ranking droughts by four levels of intensity. The ranking system wasn't around during the Dust Bowl, but meteorologists believe that and the drought of 1988 might be the only time Minnesota has been this dry.
"When you think of a 100-year flood, it's something that you'd expect to happen once in 100 years," said Mike Griesinger, meteorologist for the National Weather Service. "Well, what we're seeing in Minnesota is something that you'd expect to happen just two or maybe three times in a century."
The question now is how long it will last, whether the drought is at its peak or if the dry spell could linger for another year or two. There are no signs that relief is coming, but historically, very few Minnesota droughts have endured much longer than this one has already.
The drought resembles the drought of 1988 in the way it developed, Griesinger said. That drought began forming in fall 1987 before accelerating in the spring and summer. It began to ease in the fall of 1988, but by then the soil was so dry that effects lingered well into 1989. This dry spell, especially in northern Minnesota, also began in the fall before getting steadily worse in the spring and summer, he said.
"Most long droughts for us — aside from the 1930s — start in the fall of one year and continue through to the fall of the following year," he said. "Fall is usually when we have more dependable and more widespread precipitation. So we'll see what happens this year."
The new DNR restrictions apply to about 300 communities within three major watersheds: the Mississippi River Headwaters and the Rainy River and Red River watersheds. That includes Minneapolis and St. Paul, nearly all of central Minnesota and much of northern Minnesota.
It's unclear exactly how each utility will hit the goal to limit water use to no more than 25% above January levels. Some could put in stricter bans on watering lawns or even shutter car washes. The city of St. Paul, for example, has gone from recommending customers only water their lawns on an even/odd schedule to requiring it.
The DNR may enact new limits on agricultural irrigation or temporarily suspend more water permits.
It would take up to 9 inches of rain, spread out over a month, to significantly ease the drought, according to the DNR. The state's drought task force will meet Thursday to give updates on the situation.
"The current drought is not as severe as the historic droughts of 1988-89 or the 1930s, but it is intensifying," the DNR said in a statement.
The drought has stressed rivers and streams in nearly every corner of the state.
Mallards and gulls are taking over newly formed islands in some of the state's largest rivers. Great blue herons are stalking desperate fish corralled into smaller and smaller pools for some of the easiest meals the birds will likely find in the wild.
It's hard to say if the drought will help or harm some of the state's larger wildlife such as wolves, moose, deer and black bears, said Dan Stark, large carnivore specialist for the DNR. It all depends on what happens to their food supply, he said.
"It's complex," Stark said. "We know moose are stressed already and that heat and dryness could make it worse, but it could also impact the ticks and diseases that are impacting moose."
Wolves could fare well if the drought starts stressing or weakening deer to the point where they become more vulnerable. One thing that is almost certain is that bear hunters will probably be very successful this fall, Stark said.
As berries, acorns and hazelnuts becomes less available, bears become more bold in going after bait piles set by hunters.
"When summer foods are bad for bears, we tend to have more nuisance complaints," he said. "And when fall foods are bad we tend to see much higher hunting success rates."
About 60% of the state's streams and rivers are flowing at or near record lows, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. The flow of the Vermillion River near Voyageurs National Park was down to a trickle Wednesday, crawling at just 10 cubic feet per second — the lowest level recorded since measurements began in the 1990s, said Eric Wakeman, supervisory hydrologic technician for the Geological Survey.
"Usually it's flowing at about 310 cubic feet per second," he said. "What we're seeing now in some of these areas, especially central Minnesota and in the northeast, are fairly unprecedented."