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Parched Plains: North Dakota and drought have a long relationship
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Parched Plains: North Dakota and drought have a long relationship

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A farmer raises dust while baling hay along state Highway 1804 north of Bismarck on July 1. Soil erosion and a lack of hay production are big concerns of farmers and ranchers amid this year's drought.

Drought is no stranger to North Dakota.

The state's history includes several extended dry periods called megadroughts, including the Dust Bowl of the 1930s and a six-year stretch in the late 1980s. Even as recently as 2017, the state has experienced bouts of more severe drought, according to data from the U.S. Drought Monitor, a partnership of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Now, experts say the state is facing conditions it hasn't seen since the early 2000s.

All of North Dakota is in at least moderate drought, State Climatologist Adnan Akyuz said. That’s happened only twice since the current drought monitoring system’s inception in 2000 -- in 2006 and 2021. And 91% of the state is in severe, extreme or exceptional drought.

Monitoring drought

Monitoring a drought is a process that happens over what can be an extended period of time, according to Akyuz. There are several stages researchers identify. The first is meteorological, which occurs when there is a lack of rain. It typically takes three to six months to determine if there's a rain deficiency.

This past winter -- which Akyuz said is the 15th warmest on record for the state -- didn't help matters much either. Not only did the lack of snow affect water levels, but it also affected ground temperature. Snow on the ground will absorb solar radiation and keep the ground cooler. That didn't happen last year. Instead, the warmer ground temperature, combined with warmer spring temperatures, caused more evaporation.

After meteorological drought comes agricultural, in which farmers and ranchers begin to see impacts. That's followed by a third phase, hydrological, in which lakes and ponds see significant evaporation of pure water that leaves toxic water behind. Central and northern North Dakota are experiencing the effects of hydrological drought, the climatologist said.

What North Dakota needs to exit the drought is a higher frequency of rain along with cooler-than-normal conditions, Akyuz said. A couple rain events a week totaling about one-fourth to one-half inch of precipitation is preferable. At the very least, it would help mitigate the effects of the current drought on the next growing season. Getting a rainstorm with 6 inches of precipitation every so often could actually hurt more than it helps by causing erosion.

If rain does begin to increase, it’s likely too late in the growing season to do much good. However, more precipitation between now and September would help replenish soil moisture for next year, Akyuz said.

Getting help

Producers who need help during this growing season are turning to the state, and that can create a tough balancing act for the government.

Drought relief programs should be pragmatic, reasonable and focused on industry overall, such as an emergency feed transportation program to help offset costs of moving livestock closer to feed or vice versa, state Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring said.

It's the government's job to empower people, not enable them, the commissioner added. But the conditions in the state are making it harder for the government to walk that line.

Goehring said that when he travels around the state and attends community events focused on drought relief, he gets people asking him to make difficult choices for them.

“You’ll get people that’ll call you, and you can tell. You can hear it in their voice -- they’re paralyzed with fear and they’re asking you to make a decision for them," Goehring said. "And you can’t do that. You can give them options … but you can’t own them because I don’t know exactly everything about their operation.”

He described the differences between individual farming and ranching operations, using his own farm in Menoken as an example. His land is better suited for a farming operation, while his neighbor is better off ranching. There's no one solution to producers' problems, he said.

Goehring is working on an assessment of the effects of the drought throughout the state to bring to the state Emergency Commission so it can approve some financial relief options, and then hopefully bring the state Legislature's Interim Budget Committee in earlier than its planned September meeting to approve the aid.

But at this point, some folks who would like to take advantage of state assistance are becoming discouraged, the commissioner said. There aren’t enough people to drill wells for the Drought Disaster Livestock Water Supply Project Assistance Program to meet demand until at least late fall, and there are a number of inquiries on the state’s Drought Hotline, which connects people who need hay, those with hay to sell and those who can transport hay.

When producers are contacting the emergency feed transportation program for help, the wait time for them to get resources is so long due to the high demand that some give up, Goehring said.

While some parts of the state, such as western North Dakota, have seen drought of this severity before, it’s an unfamiliar experience for some central and northern residents, according to Goehring.

“There’s places that have not seen it this severe, so those guys, they’re just beside themselves,” he said.

Reach Sam Nelson at 701-250-8264 or sam.nelson@bismarcktribune.com.

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