Journal special report

Drought leaves long-lasting effects on Siouxland

2013-06-09T22:00:00Z 2013-06-10T11:17:14Z Drought leaves long-lasting effects on SiouxlandNICK HYTREK Sioux City Journal

SHELDON, Iowa | Rainfall here has been plentiful in the past couple weeks.

Still, Sheldon residents are under a water watch, which encourages them to conserve water use. Drought dropped the water levels of the aquifer the city's water wells tap into, and since last fall, the pumping capacity has dropped by 300 gallons per minute.

"If we get regular rains every year throughout the year, we're sitting pretty," City Manager Scott Wynja said.

They're not sitting pretty yet. The aquifer that feeds Sheldon's nine shallow wells has yet to rise back to its normal level. As a result, the city has had to rely more on its lone deep well that goes down 600 feet into a separate aquifer, one filled with harder water that requires more treatment, increasing the city's costs.

This summer, the city will spend $350,000 to drill a second deep well that will increase pumping capacity. The well had been in the plans for a few years, but the drought moved it up the priority list, Wynja said.

"It was kind of always in the back pocket, but it never really pressed us," Wynja said.

Last year's drought left crops and lawn brown and crispy, easily visible signs of the lack of moisture. Other drought effects are hard to see.

Sheldon's water supply problems are an illustration of one of the bigger effects. Dry conditions lead to more water usage for watering crops, lawns and gardens. It also means less water soaking into the ground to replenish aquifers. As a result, groundwater levels drop, and cities such as Sheldon have a hard time keeping up with demand.

Heavy rains in Northwest Iowa in late May have helped, but there are still areas waiting to see groundwater levels rise.

"With the recent rainfall, we're not sure what's going to happen yet. Our aquifer is not where it was a year ago," said Garvin Buyert, manager of the Rock Valley Rural Water District, which supplies water to the city of Hull and about 700 rural customers.

Hull residents and district customers remain under a water watch until water levels rise or the district can find new sources of water. Buyert said if the district drills new wells, the costs will likely have to be passed on to customers in a rate hike.

Brian Fuchs, a climatologist at the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, said many municipalities last summer drilled new wells or extended existing wells to reach deeper into declining water aquifers. Residents of those communities may benefit from a more-dependable water supply, but costs of new wells most likely are passed on to them in the form of higher water rates.

Farmers are seeing similar problems. Nebraska is the most irrigated state in the country, Fuchs said, but if water levels continue to drop, the sustainability of the groundwater supply will need to be considered. That could mean government regulating the number of wells that tap into it or other measures.

Pasture land suffered in last year's drought, and it could take time for grasslands to bounce back. Because of deficient pastures last summer, many ranchers had to sell off portions of their herds, losing years worth of genetics that can't be restored quickly, Fuchs said. Feeding the cattle still in the herd became more expensive because of rising hay and feed costs due to losses to hay and grain crops.

Those losses could have been worse if not for advances in crop genetics, said Cathann Kress, Iowa State University Extension vice president for extension and outreach.

"The damage was not as severe as it potentially could have been, even a few decades ago, because of these drought-resistant varieties that people are now able to plant," Kress said.

Those weren't available back in 1947, a year Kress said Extension experts are studying because of its similarities to 2013. Like this year, 1947 followed a dry summer and wet spring marked by flooding in western Iowa.

"We stayed wet until the first week of July and then we went completely dry," Kress said. "We stayed cool until mid-July, then it turned very, very hot. We're beginning to wonder if this year will look like 1947. We don't know if that's what's going to happen ... or if we're in a completely different weather cycle."

Back in 1947, you didn't hear phrases such as global warming or climate change. Last year's expanded drought across the country have led to climate change questions.

Fuchs said it's hard to attribute one drought to climate change. What has been evident is that the region has seen warmer temperatures, which leads to increased water usage, depletion of subsoil moisture and declining groundwater levels. Those conditions will lead to water suppliers drilling more wells, then increasing rates to their customers to pay for the added investment.

Water conservation, Fuchs said, is going to become a bigger issue in the future.

"Even though we can't pinpoint any of these events to climate change, I think that there's going to have to be management decisions made for what we're anticipating for future climate change," Fuchs said.

That means water conservation measures, even when it doesn't appear there are no water supply worries.

"People don't realize there's a water shortage. Water is definitely a resource that's not unlimited," Fuchs said.

Copyright 2015 Sioux City Journal. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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