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Published September 28, 2012, 10:52 AM

Drought worsens in parts of Red River Valley

The drought intensified in portions of the Red River Valley as areas now are classified in the extreme category.

By: Patrick Springer, Forum Communications

FARGO, N.D. — The drought intensified in portions of the Red River Valley as areas now are classified in the extreme category.

That designation, in an updated Drought Monitor issued Thursday, applies to an area of the central and northern Red River Valley and northwest Minnesota.

The persistent drought is diminishing river levels, with some tributaries and streams slowing to a trickle, and topsoil has dried considerably.

“The drought keeps compounding,” said Dave Kellenbenz, a senior meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Grand Forks. “We’ve been really dry since last September.”

The deterioration in conditions over the past week stems from a return to above-normal temperatures — which baked the region all summer — and the lack of rain.

The extreme drought designation has been declared for North Dakota’s Griggs, Steele, Traill, southern Grand Forks and southeast Nelson counties. In Minnesota, it applies to Roseau, eastern Marshall, northern Beltrami, northern Clearwater and the eastern two-thirds of Polk counties.

In much of the rest of the Red River Basin, moderate to severe drought prevails.

The extremely dry conditions are evident as water levels continue to drop in lakes and streams.

A large portion of northeast North Dakota and northwest quarter of Minnesota continue to see well below normal to moderate hydrological drought conditions, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

For a river to be considered in hydrological drought, flows are in the 5 to 10 percentile range.

In Mayville, N.D., the Goose River, a large tributary of the Red in the Grand Forks area, is low enough to walk across, according to a report the weather service has received.

Groundwater data suggest the low water table has stabilized in the area in the past week.

Conditions would be much worse if the area hadn’t been abnormally wet for so long before the drought struck, said Adnan Akyuz, the state climatologist for North Dakota.

Although dry conditions have gripped the valley for at least a year, the seemingly abrupt shift from very wet to very dry has been a steady progression, said Mark Ewens, a senior meteorologist and analyst for the weather service.

“It does surprise us all,” he said. “But it’s been a year or more in the making. It kind of crept up on us.”

Growing season

Widespread freezing conditions Sunday brought an end to the growing season, according to the weather service. With harvest completed or under way, it’s difficult to assess agricultural impacts of the drought. But one thing is clear: If the drought conditions persist, next year’s growing conditions could be challenging, Akyuz said.

Given weather patterns, he expects the dry conditions to linger, at least in the short term, he added.

“One can expect a worsening of the drought conditions,” Akyuz said. “I think that’s a pretty safe prediction.”

Above normal temperatures are likely to continue, according to the one-month and three-month outlooks issued by the Climate Prediction Center.

Also, Akyuz said, most of the area’s moisture comes up from the Gulf of Mexico. Because the drought is even more severe in the central and southern Plains, much of the moisture is lost before it reaches the north.

On the other hand, forecasters say there is no “definitive climatic signal” yet to predict precipitation for fall and early winter.

Fall is typically a dry time of year. For precipitation to help soil conditions, it would have to come before the ground freezes or right afterward, Kellenbenz said.

Both Akyuz and Ewens said it is too early to declare an end to the predominantly wet period that dates back to 1993.

The wet phase was interrupted by what Ewens called a “flash drought” in 2006 and was preceded by a dry period that lasted from 1987 to 1992, with a severe drought from 1988 to 1989.

“This is just a little bump in the road,” Akyuz said. The predominantly wet phase hasn’t ended yet, despite the current drought.

But, he added, it probably will take at least another two years to tell.

Editor’s Note: This article is from Forum Communications, which owns Agweek.