The overall drought this year in southern Minnesota doesn’t rank as bad as those of 1988 or other years. Heavy rains in the spring helped limit the severity of the drought on crops and backyards.
But when it comes to low river levels, we’re setting records.
Just how low are they? The Watonwan River near Garden City has nearly stopped flowing with a depth of only 4 inches.
The Minnesota River at Mankato fell to below one foot last week, putting it at the third-lowest level in history — and it could move higher in the record books if the drought persists.
The river at Mankato was at or below one-half foot in 1934 and 1976.
Other low-flow records were 1.3 feet in 1964, 1.4 feet in 1961, 1.6 feet in 1988 and 1.8 feet in 1974.
River levels of tributaries are likewise extremely low. The Le Sueur River near Rapidan is at 1.1 feet. The Cottonwood River at New Ulm is at 2.1 feet.
The river levels could be a dream for anglers this fall. TJ DeBates, fisheries supervisor at the state Department of Natural Resources, said fish are congregating in deep holes along rivers — pools carved down 20-30 feet when floodwaters swirl into curves in the rivers.
But getting to those fishing holes may not be by boat. Most boat launches are high and dry, and navigating a boat on the river is dicey. So anglers will have to fish the holes from shore, canoe or kayak.
How fish will fare this late fall and winter will depend on whether some fall rains raise river levels. DeBates says fish routinely winter over in deep pools in the river. But they need at least some flowing water under the ice to feed the pools with oxygen.
“On some of the tributaries we’re concerned. When there’s no flow and the leaves fall into the holes, the leaves break down and use up the oxygen. On the larger rivers, there will still be some flow to bring fresh water.”
The recent dry, hot summers also have triggered an ironic circumstance. Farmers have spent recent years rapidly installing new and better farm tile drainage systems that get water off the landscape in record time. Now, more and more farmers are turning to irrigation systems to salvage their crops.
“I’ve issued more (farm irrigation) permits in the past two years than I have in the past 20,” said Leo Getsfried, a DNR hydrologist based in Mankato.
Many of those permits have been in areas where the soil is lighter and sandier. But even in heavier loam soils, crops took a hit because of a lack of stored soil moisture.
“We’ve treated water as the common enemy — trying to get it out as fast as it can. That may come back to haunt us,” Getsfried said.
Low water levels have caused Getsfried to temporarily suspend a few water-use permits in the area for businesses or communities that draw water directly from rivers or lakes. SMC, for example, had to stop drawing water from the Blue Earth River — water it used to wash gravel at a pit south of Mankato.