MINNEAPOLIS -- Minnesota's snow-covered landscape amounts to a desert-like mirage these days because winter's blanket hides a dirty secret: The state is in the middle of a drought that, with some persistence, could rival the last great dry spell of the late 1980s.
The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources State Climatology Office traces the current drought, which has exhausted soil moisture and lowered lakes and streams, back to late 2011 and the driest autumn in Minnesota history. In fact, the U.S. Drought Monitor reveals a quarter of Minnesota is in extreme drought; most of the state is in the severe range.
After a rainy start to the 2012 growing season, the faucet shut off; and State Climatologist Greg Spoden says, "We lived off the soil moisture supply that was in play because of the wet spring, and that bank account has been emptied."
Wells drying up
Unlocking the frozen soil's secrets is not easy, unless you dig wells for a living.
On a mid-January day, Troy Kuck's Searless Well Drilling rig bores into the Blue Earth County dirt. It is particularly dry in this part of Minnesota. Between mid-June and late November 2012, state climatology reports moisture was 10 to 12 inches below normal.
In fact, Kuck estimates his residential well-replacement business has doubled, largely due to the drought.
On this particular job, the old well just cannot keep up.
As the drill rig roars in his backyard, Blue Earth County resident Randy Rustman says, "We're down to 2 feet of water in the well." He adds, "That's a washing machine that holds 55 gallons."
However, Kuck has a better way to measure the depths of the drought.
"You have to dig down 15 feet, you know, to get moisture in the soil right now," Kuck says. "Usually, it's a couple feet."
Another drought measurement can be found above "ground," or more precisely, on top of Lake Minnetonka's ice.
Paul Pedersen, who has lived on the lake since the late '70s, only needs to look at how high his dock rises out of the frozen lake to measure the dry spell.
"From our high water of last summer ... we're down probably close to 2 feet."
He says the lake never reached what he considers a normal high-water mark last summer.
Pedersen remembers the last great drought of the late '80s. He owned Gray's Bay Marina then and still has an aerial photo that clearly shows grooves on the lake bottom from passing boats.
On this January day, Pedersen says, "If it would be a foot lower than this, I'd probably have difficulty. It would be shallower than you'd feel good about driving your boat in."
By the Minnehaha Creek Watershed District's official measurements, the lake still needs to drop a couple feet to match the low-water mark of the late '80s drought. However, since that thirsty spell, the lake has only been lower than it is now, once - the autumn of 2000.
Even the mighty Mississippi River is feeling a bit thirsty this winter.
The drought in the nation's midsection actually threatened to close the Middle Mississippi River between St. Louis and Cairo, Ill. However, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was able to keep it open.
Closer to home, in January at the Upper St. Anthony Falls Lock and Dam, the river's flow was roughly a third below normal. That's not enough to threaten navigation, but keeping the river open is important.
"The cargo that was shipped on barges through this lock last year alone would've filled 33,000 semi trailers in the streets of Minneapolis," says U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Col. Michael Price.
If the drought persists, Price says, "It'll have a dramatic, adverse impact on commerce and on the economics of the Twin Cities."
Back at state climatology, Greg Spoden says without abundant spring rains, Minnesota is on the verge of a 1988-like drought.
As things stand, the soil is certainly not in shape to produce a crop.
"Not without replenishing the soil moisture, no. Timely rains would do the trick; but there would be no buffer; there would no room for dry spells," Spoden says.
What will not help the soil right now is that Minnesota mirage - snow. Spoden says it's all about what happens after the thaw.
Greg Vandegrift, KARE