HEAT WAVE: No sign of relief
Drought, high temps to continue
“You have to go back quite a ways to find a drought like what we are seeing now. Wow, we’ve been below normal!”
That’s how Allen Schlag, National Weather Service hydrologist in Bismarck, views the current dry conditions that plague much of western and central North Dakota. It’s been dry before, to be sure, but the current drought rivals what was experienced in the infamous “Dirty 30s,” not in duration but certainly in terms of a lack of moisture.
“Insert 2017 into the drought of the thirties and it would be a good fit. It matches what we saw in the thirties,” said Schlag. “Dickinson is experiencing their driest period on record for this time of year. It trumps even the 1930s.”
If dry ground, withering crops and insufficient pasture growth aren’t convincing enough, then the numbers certainly are. Bismarck and Minot have had less than half average rainfall for this time of year and virtually none for several weeks. So far in July Minot has officially recorded a scant .04 inches of precipitation.
Incredible as it seems, the worst of the drought is south and west of Minot. The Dickinson area is crazy dry. Another southwest community, Hettinger, has received only about an inch and a quarter of precipitation for the entire year. Crops and pasture growth in that area is non-existent. According to the weekly U.S. Drought Monitor, small grain crop failures are being reported at several locations in North Dakota and there are reports of producers selling off livestock. Soil moisture is rated short to very short over 62 percent of the state.
Unfortunately, there’s little cause for optimism to be found in the latest forecasts that the drought will end soon. In fact, conditions are far more likely to get worse. The NWS says temperatures over most of the state will be in the upper 90s to more than 100 degrees today, Minot included. The heat will further exacerbate miserably dry conditions in many areas, probably for several more days. The NWS says temperatures for the Minot region will remain 90-plus at least through Wednesday, making staying cool and hydrated a priority for people and pets.
Compounding the situation is a continuing lack of rainfall. With the exception of a few small, “hit and miss” thunderstorms, there’s no major precipitation system bearing down on the region.
“The operation models go out 10 days,” said Schlag. “Any storm won’t be big, not county-wide events. They’ll be little thunderstorm that pass by, not drought busters by any stretch of the imagination. There’s no significant relief in the 10-day forecast.”
The weekly Drought Monitor upped the percentage of North Dakota enduring “extreme” drought to 36 percent this week. It was listed at 29 percent a week ago. The portion of the state classified as being in “severe” drought jumped from 47 percent to 55 percent.
The drought area continues to grow. In South Dakota, 72 percent of the spring wheat crop is currently rated as poor to very poor. In Montana the number is 62 percent. Topsoil moisture in Montana is now rated as short to very short over 89 percent of the state. Temperatures over much of the drought stricken area have been averaging four to 10 degrees above normal.
“We are definitely in a strong meteorlogical drought, a severe agricultural drought and are approaching a hydrologic drought,” stated Schlag. “A hydrologic drought is when rivers and streams begin to suffer. They are wearing off a little each and every day.”
The sources of water for streams and rivers in North Dakota can vary quite dramatically, from reservoirs to soil conditions in a drainage. However, a constant this year is a drop in flows, particularly in the west.
Long Creek at Noonan was flowing at an almost immeasurable 0.45 cubic feet per second this week. The long-term average is 59.0. The Souris River at Verendrye was moving 40.4 cfs Thursday. That compares to a long-term average of 288. Other examples include the Little Missouri River at Medora 4.40 cfs with a long-term average of 288, and the Knife River at Beulah at 26.5 cfs compared to a long-term average of 166 cfs.
While some streams rely almost solely on precipitation run-off to produce flow, others receive some year round flow from seepage, such as water percolating through sandy subsoil and entering the drainage. There’s evidence of less and less water leeching into streams, an indicator of how dry conditions have become. Gates are closed at Lake Darling Dam, the major source of flow for the Souris River.
Schlag says the current drought started toward the end of March. Expected spring rains never materialized.
“Bismarck had it’s fourth driest May on record, just a quarter-inch of moisture,” said Schlag. “Minot wasn’t much better. It was really the kick-off for what I consider to be the drought.”
Soil moisture content is a good measuring stick when it comes to determining drought conditions. Soil moisture over much of the drought area was rated as high as 80 percent in April but that number fell quickly due to an abundance of very windy days and no meaningful precipitation.
“Vegetative growth used up the soil moisture and by late May we were falling back into normal soil moisture conditions,” said Schlag. “Since then we haven’t gotten a lick of rain.”
There’s a chance, just a chance, of thunderstorms that will help alleviate some dry conditions during the coming week. Not much of a chance, but at least a small possibility of relief for some.
“These aren’t big storms, maybe a few miles wide,” said Schlag. “One farmer could get a half-inch and his neighbor get nothing.”
Still to come are the hot days of August with an average rainfall of 2.04 inches.
“There really and truly isn’t any way to know when this ends, but we are getting to the point where we will hit rock bottom,” said Schlag.