The Watershed and Drought of 2021

It’s been a hard year for many that depend on the rain to provide income, reasonable aesthetics, and terrestrial and aquatic habitat, and we’re still experiencing the impact of the 2021 drought. To alleviate the drought in Minnesota, we’ve been lucky to get several significant rainfall events in late August and September. But we’re not out of the woods yet.

According to the Sept. 23, 2021 U.S. Drought Monitor for Minnesota, the Vermillion River Watershed is experiencing moderate drought conditions. NOAA indicates that 2021 is currently the ninth driest year Dakota County has experienced and the 15th driest year Scott County has experienced in the last 127 years. According to Vermillion River flow records from the U.S Geological Survey’s gaging station in Empire Township, these weather conditions have led to the lowest river flows since 2009, and the Vermillion River has only had this low of flow twice in the last 23 years of available online data.

While most watershed residents didn’t notice the impact until late spring or early summer, this really began in late 2020 and early 2021. Low precipitation in the winter, followed by a prompt warm up this spring, got plants growing earlier than normal. It started algae growth early in ponds and lakes, and algae was present in early summer where normally it wouldn’t be that extensive until late summer. Most apparent was the low flow at the Vermillion Falls in Hastings, pictured here, from mid-August.

The low flow conditions affected the organisms that inhabit the river as their habitats didn’t have consistent water levels to support them. They either moved to areas where consistent water was present or died. However, it also meant that we had very little stormwater runoff and pollutants reaching the river. Sampling of the River’s fish species indicated plentiful fish, including the well-known trout population.

Considering the dry winter and spring, irrigation of crops and lawns began early too. As a result, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources notified public water suppliers and other “significant” water use DNR permit holders to enact water conservation measures or implement water use reductions to prioritize water uses for those that need them most. This meant that many residents watering their lawns or farmers watering their crops were forced to reduce use or shut their irrigation systems down at times.

Climate change is driving all kinds of weather extremes. A year ago, the watershed was flush with water and VRWJPO staff were addressing complaints from the public about too much water causing issues on their land. These variations in the local climate make land and water matters challenging, but it’s never too early to develop a plan to adapt your property to these extremes. Creating a resilient landscape on your property is something everyone can do.  Some recommendations to create a resilient landscape include:

  • Urban/Suburban Areas
    • If you’re concerned about the appearance of your turfgrass during drought, consider an alternative like native prairie plants or low mow fescue grasses that are more tolerant of these conditions.
    • If you like traditional turfgrass, consider aerating the soil this fall and top-dressing your lawn with compost to provide more organic matter and microorganisms that improve your soil health and better address its moisture needs.
    • If you have an irrigation system for your yard, ensure you have a “smart” controller that is EPA WaterSense Certified and can adjust irrigation based on your previous, current, and future weather conditions and the landscape type.
    • Convert a portion of your yard into a rain garden to capture rain that falls, remove pollutants, and allow it to soak it into the ground and replenish the groundwater supply.
  • Rural/Agricultural Areas
    • Use conservation tillage or adopt no-till practices to retain moisture, suppress weed growth, and improve soil health
    • Integrate cover crops into your existing agricultural crop to improve soil health and break up soil compaction
    • Plant a harvestable cover crop that improves soil heath, requires less water, and can be utilized for sale or feed.
    • Use the checkbook method to determine appropriate crop irrigation scheduling.

The VRWJPO and its partners at the Dakota County Soil and Water Conservation District and Scott Soil and Water Conservation District can provide assistance and have programs available to develop and create a resilient landscape, so contact the VRWJPO or SWCDs if you would like to learn more or take advantage of these resources.