Climate experts: Iowa drought likely to extend into spring planting season

By: - January 18, 2021 9:00 am

Federal rules on waterways could affect Iowa farming, the state agriculture secretary says. (Photo by Perry Beeman/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

Iowa has a slightly elevated risk of the drought in western counties pushing into spring planting season, a top federal climate official said.

Dennis Todey, director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Midwest Climate Hub in Ames, told 50 regional climate and natural resources officials last week that the lingering La Niña conditions in the Pacific Ocean could mean drier conditions persist in Iowa. 

The latest U.S. Drought Monitor shows the northwestern half of Iowa in drought or drier than usual. The extreme northwest corner of the state is in extreme drought.

The Iowa state climatologist expects drought to continue in western Iowa as spring planting approaches. (Image courtesy of U.S. Drought Monitor)

Winter isn’t expected to help recharge moisture much, with groundwater frozen in place and snowmelt unlikely to change soil conditions quickly, Todey said. Rivers in the central part of the state are lower than usual, while some along the Mississippi River are running higher than normal, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources reported.

Todey said the state will be going into next year with dry soil, a change from a year ago. 

“If we were in a situation like last year, where we had a full soil moisture, we wouldn’t be talking about this too seriously,” Todey said. “Because we are dry and need more rainfall, we have a slightly increased chance of continuing to be dry.”

Much depends on if the La Niña conditions drag on, Todey said. The cooler than normal ocean water can bring weather patterns that favor drought.

Will drought continue? Hard to say

“I’m not guaranteeing that there’s going to be problems this year,” Todey said. “But we are going to have some problems because of current conditions, and the potential for those continuing does exist. 

“Is it a huge elevated risk? No. Is there an increased risk? Yes,” Todey added.

Dennis Todey is director of the Midwest Climate Hub in Ames. (Photo courtesy of U.S. Department of Agriculture)

The dry conditions in western Iowa are not expected to improve quickly, Todey said. Spring rains will help, but may not be enough. 

“I have a hard time thinking that it’s go completely away,” he said of the drought. “So that puts us in drought risk problems for the year, especially on the ag side.”

State Climatologist Justin Glisan said a majority of the state is already dry. 

“Currently we have 61% of the state covered in some form of drought or abnormal dryness,” he said. 

Part of the reason: The state got 6 inches less precipitation than normal in 2020, which turned out to be the 36th-driest year in 149 years of records.

Glisan said January tend to be Iowa’s driest month, so conditions aren’t expected to improve in the next few weeks.

“When we look at western Iowa, we are kind of status quo,” Glisan said. “We haven’t really seen any decrease in subsoil moisture, but we haven’t seen any increase in available subsoil moisture.”

Soil moisture levels are critical in Iowa, a top producer of corn and soybeans. Glisan said it now appears the drought may extend into the next growing season. 

Glisan added that some areas of the state got 16 to 18 inches less precipitation than normal over the past year.

The U.S. Climate Prediction Center predicts drought will continue at least through the end of March in parts of western Iowa. The drought will continue to cover much of the western half of the country.

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Perry Beeman
Perry Beeman

Perry Beeman has nearly 40 years of experience in Iowa journalism and has won national awards for environmental and business writing. He has written for The Des Moines Register and the Business Record, where he also served as managing editor. He also is former editorial director of Grinnell College. He co-authored the recently published book, "The $80 Billion Gamble," which details the lottery-rigging case of Eddie Tipton.