Even with normal precipitation in 2007, it will take a while for the Brainerd area to recover from the drought of 2006.
Currently, the end of the drought is not in sight.
The dry weather in 2006 began in mid-May and continued through June, according to the Minnesota Climatology Working Group, which is an affiliation between the DNR and the University of Minnesota. Record temperatures in July led to the rapid intensification of drought. Since then the Brainerd area has been listed in an extreme drought condition.
The summer rainfall deficits and hot weather caused deteriorating crop conditions, dwindling stream flows, lower lake levels and increased the danger of wildfire. Impacts of the drought included surface water appropriation permit suspensions, local burning bans, an agricultural disaster declaration for 36 counties, the lowest lake levels in 30 years and a number of major wildfires, the DNR reported.
Little snow rests on the ground in open areas in the Brainerd lakes area. The lack of rain last spring and summer combined with the lack of snow this winter has put the Brainerd area and most of northern Minnesota in an extreme drought, which is expected to continue through April.
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Brainerd Dispatch/Steve Kohls
Rain was lacking in 2006 in Brainerd, with only 16.78 inches reported by the DNR, compared to an average of 27.41 inches. With only 11.5 inches of snow this winter - 21 inches below the 10-year average - it will take higher-than-normal precipitation this spring and summer to undue the damage caused by the 2006 drought, said
Pete Boulay, assistant state climatologist with the DNR.
"Unless we have extraordinary rainfall it will be hard to erase this deficit very easily at this point," Boulay said. This is possible but not climatologically likely, Boulay said.
The National Weather Service's Climate Predication Center is forecasting the Brainerd area's extreme drought conditions to persist through April. The center's three-month outlook shows above average temperatures for all of Minnesota. Whether spring rains will bring relief is unclear. The National Weather Service's forecast though April is indeterminate about how much precipitation could fall.
With those outlooks in hand, the Minnesota Climatology Working Group identified several areas of concern for 2007:
- Streams dropping below protected flow thresholds after the spring melt.
- Low lake levels and associated water access issues.
- Ground water levels lowering in lagged response to precipitation deficits. Ground water levels also will respond to increased pumping pressures.
- Inadequate soil moisture conditions further impacting agriculture, especially forage crops.
- Inadequate soil moisture conditions further stressing forest communities, making them more vulnerable to pests.
- Antecedent dry conditions, along with a continuation of sparse winter snow cover, could lead to a significant increase in spring wildfire risk.
Mark Mortensen, DNR forester, checked the gear last week on a DNR Forestry firefighting truck. The DNR, as well as other firefighting agencies, are gearing up for what could be a dangerous wildfire season due to continued drought.
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"Really, the first month of this year has not changed a lot, or little if any," to alleviate drought conditions, Boulay said. "It's kind of a wait-and-see thing, but we're gearing up and preparing to have continuing drought issues as we get out of the winter season. We'll see what happens, I guess."
Wildfires will be the first telling sign of a continued drought.
Every year DNR Forestry firefighters prepare for the spring wildfire season, which usually starts in late April or early May when snow melts leaving grasses and downed trees to dry out. But this year has been different, said Brainerd DNR Program Forester Mark Mortensen. With little snow cover, the wildfire season could start in late February or early March without additional precipitation.
"It's not looking good," Mortensen said. "The fact is we have such a moisture deficit and it's adding to the problem now."
The DNR, in coordination with area fire departments, state and federal agencies, have already begun to prepare for the worst. Firefighting equipment is being readied earlier, training is being conducted earlier and a roster is being prepared of potential firefighters to be used if needed. Throughout the state, Mortensen said potential trouble spots are being identified.
But wildfires in late February or early March create their own set of problems, regardless of how much fire agencies prepare, Mortensen said. The recent cold snap in the Brainerd area means ice thickness on area lakes is 20 or more inches and firefighting aircraft can't be used until lakes open. Firefighters also have to be aware of quickly melting snow and wetlands that haven't been recharged - all carrying potential fire hazards.
"We're making plans that we're going to have serious conditions this year," Mortensen said. "We'll plan as well as we can and be ready."
Mortensen said the DNR normally restricts burning permits two weeks before the snow is anticipated to be gone. He said the DNR is paying close attention to the weather this year, especially because peat fires in bogs and swamps can be especially difficult to extinguish and large burn piles can smolder for months due to lack of precipitation.
How a possible drought impacts the area's tourism business remains to be seen, said C.J. Johnson, media relations representative with Explore Minnesota Tourism. Johnson said he hadn't heard of any concerns to date.
"Sometimes it has to be experienced before we can tell what the effect is," Johnson said. "I think we're going to have to wait and see as the season gets under way."
The drought in 2006 didn't have much of an impact on lake use, Johnson said. But low water levels are cause for concern for the safety of those who use area lakes. Tim Smalley, water safety specialist with the DNR, said it's becoming harder to launch boats with water levels at 30-year-lows. Once on the lake, people also have to be careful with shallow water conditions.
"People shouldn't assume every rock in the lake is marked," Smalley said.
According to the USDA's Minnesota office, Crow Wing County farmers' livestock is in good condition and feed is available, but many are purchasing hay. Dan Lofthus, deputy director with the USDA's National Agricultural Statistics Service Minnesota Field Office said his office would know more about the effect of the drought when weekly crop reports are received this spring.
MATT ERICKSON can be reached at email@example.com or 855-5857.
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