Record drought leads to a critical winter
By Ben Kreimer, Daniel Wheaton, Travis Shafer and Matthew Waite
The story of this summer’s drought in Nebraska can be told with numbers that scarcely make sense.
Numbers like the least amount of rain fell on Nebraska soil this summer since records were kept starting in 1895. Less than the Dust Bowl droughts of the 1930s. Every inch of ground in the state was at severe drought conditions or worse. Three quarters of the state was at exceptional drought levels, the highest rating drought scientists use.
But at 400 feet in the air over the Platte River near Duncan, Neb., the extent of the drought comes into view and stretches on to the horizon. From the camera on board a multi-rotored unmanned aerial vehicle flown by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s NIMBUS Lab, dry fields, dead grass and distressed trees fill the landscape, seemingly without end.
Why was this summer so bad? And what were the consequences?
The cause starts at the source of the Platte, the Rocky Mountains. Half the normal snow fell last winter. The key source of water for the Platte was already short before the warmer months even started.
"That water didn’t work it’s way down the Platte, and unfortunately since the drought was pretty well statewide, we didn’t even have a lot of water coming in from the Elkhorn and some of the tributaries out of the sand hills like we normally would," Mark Svoboda, a climatologist at the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, said.
In March, if you stood in the Platte at the small town of Duncan, Neb., 3,300 cubic feet of water would rush by you every second. By the middle of July, the river was dry. The stream gauge was at zero. Nothing.
If you came back at the beginning of October, after it had finally rained two weeks before, barely a cubic foot of water trickled by every second. The stream was barely deep enough to top a pair of shoes.
This summer, with record consecutive hot days seemingly without end, local governments across the state had to stop residents from watering their lawns as much as was needed to keep them green and growing.
For example, Lincoln, which gets its water from wells next to the Platte in Ashland, Neb., required residents to only water on three specific days. It was a misdemeanor crime to water on the wrong day and city police officers were sent out to issue citations.
The worry across the state: Would there be any water left in the wells for winter? And what if the coming spring were dry too?
Some late summer rains led to relaxed restrictions, but the ground under the cities remains bone dry. Rain in the fall could replenish some of that, but what the state needs is snow this winter and rain in the spring, Svoboda said.
"This winter will be critical to see what sort of precipitation we get to replenish those water supplies," Svoboda said.
How low is the water supply now? Simply put, Nebraska’s wetlands aren’t wet. And soon, millions of migrating birds will cross the state as they flee Canadian winter for the Gulf Coast. Without water in the wetlands, there’s no place for them to rest and refuel.
Starting at the end of September, Chuck Lesiak, a biologist with the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, has been turning on pumps at a handful of wetlands in central Nebraska, pumping out 1,100 gallons of water a minute into what would be, in a normal year, a soggy marsh. He lets them run, for days at a time, the motors noisily pumping away.
The problem, Lesiak said, is that ground underneath the wetland is so dry, the water they pump into it disappears.
“A week or even two weeks worth of water doesn’t last a week,” he said. “It all gets soaked up.”
Ted LaGrange, the Wetlands Program Manager at the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission said they aren’t trying to create deep pools of water, since ducks and geese only need about 6 inches. As soon as they get that, they’ll quit. They’re just trying to create some habitat for the birds so they have a place to land. That, in turn, provides chances for bird watchers and hunters that wouldn’t happen with dry wetlands.
But, LaGrange said he’s aware that groundwater isn’t an unlimited resource. Like this year and in dry seasons past, the commission waits until farmers are done irrigating before considering turning on the pumps. And, with shorter days and cooler temperatures, the water they do pump out doesn’t evaporate as quickly, he said.
"Ground water is obviously a valuable resource and we take our stewardship responsibility very seriously," LaGrange said.
Dry wetlands weren’t the most obvious sign of the drought this summer. Corn fields normally filled with stalks taller than a grown man were littered with sickly looking plants half the size they’d normally be. By mid summer, many fields were dead, burned by the heat and the dry.
Karina Schoengold, an agricultural economist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, said farmers on non-irrigated lands are reporting the lowest yields in more than 20 years.
That, she said, will drive food prices higher.
Estimates are that households will see a $400 to $600 higher food bill in 2013, Schoengold said. That could have been worse, she said, but farmers were able to use backup plans and reserves to blunt the drought’s impacts, particularly on livestock.
But those means — like grazing cattle on conservation lands, where there was still some grass for cattle to eat — are one-time tricks. The cattle have now eaten that grass, and there wasn’t any rain to grow it back. If the drought continues, Schoengold said, prices could get a lot worse for consumers.
"I don’t have a crystal ball," she said. "A lot really depends on what happens next year."