Drought Taking a Toll on Iowa Rivers
WATERLOO, Iowa --- Not much water separates the Cedar River's bottom from its top these days.
John Carr, in fact, needed just 8 inches of fishing line between his hook and bobber Thursday. And still each ill-fated nightcrawler banged on the rocks.
Downstream from where Carr was fishing, a man and his dog waded across the river. Another angler was positioned in the middle of the Cedar's channel. Neither person got into water much above his knees.
Carr in his 76 years has seen the river low before. But never quite like this.
"This is the worst," he said.
Rivers across the state are flowing at or near historically low levels for this time of year. Nearly three months of inadequate rainfall will do that.
"Before it was a concern. Now it's moving into a full-fledged drought," said Michael Anderson, a civil engineer for water usage with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources.
As an example, the Wapsipinicon River was at 4.51 feet Friday in Independence. The record low is 4.3 feet set in February 1954, according to the National Weather Service.
Flood stage on the Wapsi at that monitoring point is 12 feet, and the historic high crest is 22.35 feet set May 18, 1999.
The Cedar, Shell Rock, Little Cedar, Iowa, Upper Iowa, Turkey, Wapsipinicon and virtually every other waterway continue to shrink as day after day passes without significant, widespread rainfall.
"We haven't seen anything quite like this since '88," Anderson said.
"Over the course of my career, which started in 1990, this is as bad as it's been," he added.
The similarity begins with weather patterns: low rainfall totals coupled with high temperatures for prolonged periods.
"I don't think anyone likes the trend going on. It's kind of a common-sense thing. You can look out the window and see it's awful hot and dry out there," Anderson said.
In Waterloo, the Cedar was at 5.3 feet Friday and flowing at 510 cubic feet per second. At that rate, the river ranks in the 2nd percentile judged against its own historic flows, according to Jon Nania, a hydrologist with the U.S. Geological Survey.
The Cedar last year at this time in Waterloo was flowing at a rate of 7,700 cubic feet per second. During the flood of 2008 it flowed at 112,000 cubic feet per second.
"It's low," Nania said.
The Iowa River at Marshalltown (6th percentile), Shell Rock at Shell Rock (6th), Little Cedar River at Ionia (6th) and Wapsipinicon at Independence (8th), Cedar at Charles City (9th) are also all discharging at very low rates, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
The Cedar River in Charles City, for instance, was at 1.97 feet. The record low is 1.68 feet set in November 1989.
In Northeast Iowa as of Friday afternoon, only the Upper Iowa at Decorah and Turkey at Spillville are flowing slightly better, but at the 20th percentile according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
Which is not to say the those rivers are in great shape. The Upper Iowa on Friday, for example, was at 2.21 feet Friday. The record low is 1.3 feet set in February 1959.
"This stuff does happen," Nania said. "It's just that we haven't seen it for a while. We've had so many years of high flows. It's time we start thinking about low flows."
Nearby streams are faring somewhat better than others in Iowa. Part of the reason is underlying geology, according to Anderson. Northeast Iowa typically holds vast amounts of groundwater.
"Northeast Iowa has a little better base flow than other parts of the state, so that can protect (rivers and streams) a little bit longer than other parts of the state," Anderson said.
The DNR has the authority to regulate water usage for entities drawing more than 25,000 gallons per day, according to Anderson. Those might include agricultural irrigation systems and recreational outlets, like golf courses, he said.
"If push comes to shove in a really horrible drought, there are priorities (but) we've never as a state gotten into that on any kind of a large scale," Anderson said.
A lot of eyes, though, are watching monitors and river levels.
"Most of the gauges along the Cedar are doing all right, but, for lack of a better word --- call it stressed ... it looks like pretty soon they might be hitting the protected levels," Anderson said.
"We were kind of in a watchful waiting mode, but I would call it a worried waiting now."
According to the National Weather Service, water flowing at 1 cubic foot per second is approximately equal to 7.5 gallons per second.
The Cedar River on Friday in Waterloo was flowing at 510 cubic feet per second, or about 3,815 gallons per second.
For comparison, last July the river was at 7,700 cubic feet per second, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. That translates as about 57,600 gallons per second.
The record low rate is 152 cubic feet per second set in 1959. The rate equals slightly less than 1,140 gallons per second.
During the flood of 2008, the Cedar in Waterloo was moving at 112,000 cubic feet per second, a record. The rate is equal to 837,760 gallons per second.
The Cedar at its record high flow could have filled 1 1/2 Olympic-sized swimming pools each second. At its record low, the river would need nearly 10 minutes to fill just one.
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