Dubuque County, region face drought, uncertainty despite recent rains

State and federal climate officials announced this week that a portion of northeast Iowa — including Clayton, Delaware and Dubuque counties — continues to face a drier-than-normal spring.

Although recent rain showers might instill hope, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources’ water summary update showed that the area is facing one of the driest springs in recent memory.

“Interestingly enough, given that northeast Iowa was the wettest part of the state in 2020, that’s where we’ve seen up to six months’ driest conditions — anywhere from 2 to 5 inches below normal,” said State Climatologist Justin Glisan during the virtual update.

Statewide, Glisan said Iowa is facing its 16th driest spring on record.

“But if we look at north-central and northeast and central Iowa, (it was) in the top five driest Aprils on record,” he said.

He said that lack of consistent rain is negatively affecting the soil moisture profile statewide, leaving 80% of holding capacity empty.

“These are very dry conditions we’ve seen consistently into this growing season, effectively since last fall,” Glisan said. “When we look at topsoil, it’s a similar story. And as we get into the warmer part of the season, we can get an atmospheric thirst that will extract moisture out of topsoil a lot faster, especially with windier, lower relative-humidity days.”

According to Zachary Timm, conservation agronomist for Dubuque County Soil and Water Conservation District, farmers already are facing trouble.

“When we were planting, it was really dry,” he said. “A lot of producers were planting deeper, trying to find moisture. Others tried planting early and have had to replant.”

Dennis Todey, director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Midwest Climate Hub in Ames, Iowa, said the showers in the last two weeks have done little to quench the region’s dry spell.

“The rainfall has been enough to green things up but, from a water standpoint, has not improved the situation,” he said during this week’s update. “We’re in a lot of the (right) categories for an inch or an inch and a half (in coming days). That would be nice to get, but the average for this time of year is an inch of precipitation. Just to hold steady isn’t going to fix it.”

Northeast Iowa benefitted from having the wettest 2020 of any of the state’s nine climate regions, which helps some. But according to Timm, the fields still look thirsty.

“It’s drying up really fast,” he said. “It doesn’t take long, after a rain, for you to see dust clouds.”

This is usually the time of year when rains begin picking up. But according to Todey, there is little reason yet to think that will be the case this year based on national weather patterns coming from the west — La Niña, cooler, or El Niño, warmer.

“The La Niña we were in has weakened,” he said. “We’re in what’s called neutral conditions — not in La Niña or El Niño. That leaves our outlooks wide open. We don’t have indications of things getting that much better. There will be ebbs and flows, but we think some level of drought is going to stick with us.”

Glisen explained why this is troublesome news for crops in the area.

“Considering row crops require about 25 inches of water through their physiological processes, we can see rapid degradation as corn and beans use up subsoil moisture if we don’t get into regular rainfalls,” he said.

With little certainty from climate projections, Timm said area farmers are left with few options but to replant if it gets bad enough and if it seems economically reasonable for them. Any other management practices would have had to be implemented in advance.

“There is preemptive stuff — planting cover crops, leaving residue on the field — to leave those channels for infiltration (of water into the soil),” he said.

But Timm also said what rain has been had in Dubuque County this year has been timely, so he thinks there is hope for the season.

“A couple of good soaking rains would do a lot,” he said.

Jackson and Jones counties are located in a different climate district than Clayton, Delaware and Dubuque counties — one with precipitation closer to normal for this time of year.