State’s new drought plan seeks to increase monitoring and proactive mitigation

By: - March 13, 2023 3:37 pm

Droughts are expected to become more common with Iowa's changing climate. (Stock photo via Canva)

State agencies have developed Iowa’s first-ever comprehensive plan to mitigate the effects of future droughts that have the potential to affect the availability of water for drinking and for agricultural and industrial uses.

It includes a proposal to install monitoring stations in every county and to create a system that will collect and analyze data from the stations, which together is expected to cost more than $1 million.

The Iowa Drought Plan — created over the past two years by the state Department of Natural Resources, Department of Homeland Security and Emergency and Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship — doesn’t mandate any drought remedies. Instead, it  acts as a guide that might boost available water in rural areas and help cities anticipate potential shortages.

“We need to have a structure and a mechanism that helps state agencies — and therefore local agencies — be able to respond to drought conditions and maybe even prepare for them in a more structured manner,” said Tim Hall, the DNR’s hydrology resources coordinator.

The plan calls for a new online system to better monitor and detect droughts as they form. The proposed Iowa Drought Information System would aggregate rainfall, stream flow and other data that is already collected but is dispersed across multiple websites and databases, some of which aren’t publicly available.

The system would also collect data from monitoring stations in each county to track local rainfall, wind, soil moisture and temperature and groundwater levels.

The U.S. Drought Monitor uses currently available data to estimate where drought conditions exist, but it lacks precision because the monitoring of soil moisture in Iowa is sporadic, said Keith Schilling, the state geologist.

With the proposed monitoring stations in each county, “we’d give them better data, we’d get better data back,” he said. “So they’re not guessing where the drought designations are in the state. They will know where the drought conditions are.”

There are 20 of the monitoring stations right now in the state, and 30 more in eastern Iowa are expected to be installed with the help of federal funding this year. It will cost about $600,000 to install the stations in the western half of the state.

It’s unclear whether state lawmakers will provide money to fund the projects this year. The system to collect and analyze the data is expected to cost about $450,000 to create and about $250,000 each year to operate.

Droughts might be more frequent

The state climatologist has noted a shift in rainfall patterns in the state, with potent storms striking smaller areas. That can lead to significant disparities in soil moisture from one county to the next or even within the same county.

Last year, two similar cornfields about six miles apart in Humboldt County in north-central Iowa had starkly different yields because one was significantly drier. The wetter land yielded 200 bushels per acre versus 140 for the dry one.

“If I had to pick an area most at risk, it is northwest Iowa,” Hall said.

Much of that part of the state suffered from drought that has lessened this winter. That area of the state typically receives less precipitation than other parts of the state and has a higher concentration of livestock, which increases the demand for water.

Further, the geology of northwest Iowa makes deep, groundwater wells undesirable, Hall said.

“It’s got a lot of iron and a lot of sulfur in it,” he said. “It doesn’t taste good. It doesn’t smell good.”

As such, shallow wells that draw water near rivers are pervasive, and those are much more susceptible to droughts. In 2012, water utilities in that area of the state imposed restrictions and sought voluntary conservation from customers to preserve dwindling water supplies.

One solution for those rural water utilities is to connect to a South Dakota utility that draws large amounts of high-quality water near a dam of the Missouri River. But there are other options, including the retention of stormwater or river water during periods of high flow.

An example: Hall said a northwest Iowa water utility created a drainage channel to divert water from a river, when it reaches a certain height, into a former quarry, There, the water soaks into the ground and helps feed a well field.

Droughts are predicted to become more common with the changing climate, and it’s important for water utilities, municipalities and residents be more aware of conservation methods and when and how to implement them, Hall said. The new monitoring stations will help cities decide whether to restrict usage, which is most often accomplished by limiting lawn irrigation.

“Getting people to think about water use when there’s plenty of water around is one of the keys, because having them think about it when we’re in a drought oftentimes doesn’t help,” Hall said. “It’s too late.”

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Jared Strong
Jared Strong

Senior reporter Jared Strong has written about Iowans and the important issues that affect them for more than 15 years, previously for the Carroll Times Herald and the Des Moines Register.