Low water levels causing problems for boaters and wildlifeby Tom Robertson, Minnesota Public Radio
Heavy rainfalls last month brought much needed drought relief to parts of the state. But the rains missed most of northern Minnesota, where its been relatively dry the past four months. The lack of rain, along with one of the hottest Julys on record, has put much of northern Minnesota into extreme drought. Water levels on lakes and streams are the lowest they've been in years. The low water is causing problems for some plants, animals and especially for recreational boaters.
Bemidji, Minn. — Water levels on lakes fluctuate from year to year. Most people usually don't notice. But on Lake Beltrami north of Bemidji, you can't miss the affects of this summer's drought.
Duane Fayette is standing below his dock in soft sand that used to be underwater. The water has receded about 30 feet from the shoreline. Tires on his dock that were submerged last spring are now high and dry.
"The water used to be up to the rocks in here, so it's down, say, two feet, anyway," said Fayette. "I just took a boat out that was pretty much in the sand. We had to push and push and push to get it out."
Fayette has lived on the lake for 18 years. He says he's never seen the water so low. Fayette has to park his pontoon at his neighbor's dock, where the water is a little deeper. He says people will soon be scrambling to figure out how to get their boats out for the season.
"Nobody is happy with the situation of low water, but there isn't much we can do about it," he said.
Climatologists say the Mississippi Headwaters region of north central Minnesota is among the hardest hit drought areas in the state. Last week the Army Corps of Engineers announced it would limit the release of water from six dams the Corps operates on upper Mississippi lakes.
John O'Leary is the Corps' regional manager. He says holding back water will help stabilize levels on the chain of lakes that includes Winnibigoshish, Leech and Gull lakes. Levels on those lakes are down anywhere from seven to 13 inches. O'Leary says the low water in some places is making boating hazardous.
"All of the sudden there are sand bars and there's rocks and there's other obstacles there that certainly give them problems, and damaging their boats or props," said O'Leary. "And that's a serious thing. It's dangerous and it certainly could also damage their property.
O'Leary says water levels haven't been this low since 1988 and it's affecting more than boaters. O'Leary says the economically important wild rice crop in northern Minnesota could also be affected.
"If the water continues to drop, or if we get a big wind event, now that these... heads of wild rice are higher than normal out of the water and we get a high wind, that will certainly tip over the rice," O'Leary said. "What I'm saying is that we're really have a very vulnerable situation now for the wild rice."
The discharge flow of rivers and streams in northern Minnesota are also way below normal. Larry Kramka is a hydrologist for the Department of Natural Resources' northwest region. Kramka says there are many stretches of the Mississippi River that have large, dry mud flats and exposed rocks. He says dried up rivers are in some cases forcing fish populations to move to deeper areas to survive.
"Some of the places that the fish have moved may now be completely isolated, just standing pockets of water, pools out in a dry river bed in a sense," said Kramka. "And so those fish would be potentially lost if they can't be reconnected up with the stream."
Kramka says other wildlife are being affected, too. Because some swamps or watering holes have dried up, animals are likely having to travel further to get drinking water. Kramka says that might cause problems for people who are in their way. He says the low water levels may also affect the migration patterns of ducks and geese this fall, forcing them to congregate in fewer places that have water.
Kramka says wildlife are used to adapting to the ebbs and flows of the natural world. He says humans will adapt, too. The state is moving into a wetter season now. Kramka says we could still get significant rainfall over the next few months that would help reverse drought conditions.
"This is more of a temporary inconvenience right now," Kramka said. "If the climate reverses itself and you get a normal rainfall and snowfall this winter, most people in the spring wouldn't know the difference."
The state's agriculture industry has been hardest hit by the drought. Last week, 36 counties in northern and central Minnesota were declared federal agricultural disaster areas. Forestry officials are also warning of high fire danger in the north.
- Morning Edition, 09/12/2006, 7:24 a.m.