Has snowfall made dent in drought?

Fate of drought, Minnehaha Creek levels still depends on spring weather, say experts


Last summer was one of the driest on record in the Twin Cities, and the latest U.S. Drought Monitor shows that most of Hennepin County, including Minneapolis, remains in a moderate drought halfway through the winter.
But the unusual amount of snow and rain in December and January – as well as the big snowstorm at the end of February – has left many Minneapolis residents wondering: Has the snowfall made a dent in the drought?
Pete Boulay, a climatologist with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, said the wet start to the winter has certainly improved the drought somewhat, although all that precipitation means less than if it rains over the summer.
“We’re in better shape now than we were in November,” he said.
Luckily, Boulay said this year’s shallow frost means the ground is still soft under all the snow the area has gotten, which has allowed some water to seep in. When the snow melts and the spring rains come, the soil will be able to retain more of that moisture – that’s good news for reversing the drought.
The outlook for the rest of the season, though, depends on what happens in the next few months.
April will be the month to watch, because that’s when the weather starts to warm up, and Minneapolis sees a big jump in precipitation.
“That’s the critical month for where we’re going to wind up,” Boulay said. “A dry April will make the drought worse; a wet April will help get us out.”
Another question on the minds of many Minneapolis residents is what Minnehaha Creek – and by extension, Minnehaha Falls – will look like this summer and fall. During last year’s drought, the creek dried up in many places and the falls slowed to a trickle, then nothing at all.
Right now, Hennepin County has at least three inches of water on the ground that’s not going anywhere, regardless of what happens the rest of this season. And when the snow melts, that water will be enough to get the waterfall flowing again.
“There will be falls in the spring,” said Boulay confidently. “We have enough water in the ground that it will be pretty; it won’t be a trickle.”
But when it comes to what Minnehaha Creek will look like as the season wears on, that depends mostly on Lake Minnetonka.
The Minnehaha Creek Watershed District (MCWD) operates the Gray’s Bay Dam, which was built to manage the flow of water from Lake Minnetonka into Minnehaha Creek.
Like most bodies of water in the area, Minnetonka is still low from ongoing drought, said Tiffany Schaufler, senior project maintenance coordinator with the MCWD. The Twin Cities will need a significant amount of precipitation to overcome the deficit and raise the lake levels enough to keep a consistent amount of water in the creek.
Schaufler echoed Boulay in saying the next few months will determine what direction the drought will go, and at this point, there are too many unknowns to predict what Minnehaha Creek will look like.
“It’s hard to say exactly what will happen,” she said. “At the end of the day, our water levels directly correlate to how much water falls from the sky.”
Overall, Boulay said he’s “cautiously optimistic” about Minneapolis’ drought outlook this spring and summer.
He also reminded residents that while climate change may cause more frequent and intense periods of droughts, Minnesota has always had to deal with drought.
“Droughts are a part of the climate – always have been, always will be,” he said.

The fate of Minneapolis’ drought remains uncertain, but there are some things Minneapolis residents can do to prepare for another potentially dry summer.
Schaufler advises taking a hard look at your yard and the ways you can prevent water from running off into the street, like planting a rain garden, adding more irrigation, or changing up your landscaping to capture more moisture.
And the more informed you about the drought conditions in your area, the better. The U.S. Drought Monitor is updated every Thursday if you want to keep tabs on the status of the drought. You can also sign up to receive email updates from the MCWD about current water levels on lakes and streams in the area as well as other helpful information.


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