Drought drying up streams in Becker County, but lake levels and public utility use remain within norms

Using data as of July 20, 2021, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources said 72% of the state was experiencing severe drought conditions, up 19% from a week ago. With residents using more water for tasks, like watering lawns, Minneapolis and other communities across the state have begun to implement watering restrictions on an even/odd-days schedule. However, Vernell Roberts, general manager of Detroit Lakes Public Utilities and chair of the Missouri River Energy Services Board, says it’s not time to panic about utilities usage in Detroit Lakes.

“It’s up significantly from what we’d normally see this time of year,” said Roberts. “Some people are not watering their yards, and some people have lush yards, so they use a lot of water.”

The city’s water treatment plant is currently pumping about 2.8 million gallons of water to Detroit Lakes residents everyday, up from their average of about 2.2 million to 2.3 million gallons during typical summer use, he said. The facility has the capacity to pump up to 3.8 million gallons in a single day, but that can lead to pump overuse and increased maintenance costs.

Water for the city’s treatment plant is pulled from the Quaternary Buried Artesian Aquifer through a series of four wells drilled to around 230 feet below the ground, according to the public utilities website.

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“We could run more wells, but we can only push so much water through the facility,” said Roberts. “They say we need 3 to 5 inches of moisture to bring us out of this current drought and that’s asking a lot for this time of year.”

Detroit Lakes Public Utilities is part of Missouri River Energy Services, which is a group of 61 municipalities from Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota and Iowa who own and operate their own electrical distribution systems. Roberts said about 35% of Detroit Lakes’ electricity is generated through the Missouri River hydroelectric power system, which is currently operating between 80% to 85% of its normal generation rate.

“We had pretty good reserves in the dams and in the reservoirs going into this season,” he said. “The question is going to be, what does next winter and next spring look like?”

He added the cooperative could purchase additional electricity with their available funds to meet their power generation quotas, if the need arises, but isn’t sure it will get to that point. Customers shouldn’t see any change in their utility bills until next spring at the earliest, Roberts said, if at all.

If residents want to help conserve utilities on their own, Roberts said, they should water their lawns during the early morning and evening hours only. Additionally, they should use their air conditioning at night and switch it off during the day when they aren’t home to avoid peak service times.

While elevated water consumption hasn’t translated into lower water levels in area lakes, the streams and rivers that feed those lakes are starting to dry up.

“Everything is down,” said Adam Mortenson, water resource coordinator for the Pelican River Watershed District. “I do know that there are years in the past that this has happened, it’s not completely out of the question for (a stream) to dry up, but it hasn’t happened for a few years now.”

Minnesota DNR weekly stream flow report. July 18, 2021.

Minnesota DNR weekly stream flow report. July 18, 2021.

Currently, Campbell Creek, which fills North Floyd Lake, he said, has a dry river bed and no running water is moving through the system. Stagnant lakes can have both positive and negative affects of the lake ecosystem, he said.

A culvert opening for Campbell Creek sits motionless with no water flowing into the creek bed during a summer drought on July 22, 2021. The creek feeds into North Floyd Lake. (Michael Achterling / Tribune)

A culvert opening for Campbell Creek sits motionless with no water flowing into the creek bed during a summer drought on July 22, 2021. The creek feeds into North Floyd Lake. (Michael Achterling / Tribune)

“With the lakes being lower and a lot of our lakes having improved water quality than we had 20 years ago, our water is clearer and the sunlight is able to penetrate the water column deeper,” said Mortenson. “And that is increasing water temperature and a lot of people have been noticing algae blooms out there … and that’s a function of the temperature.”

Mortenson said some area lakes temperatures have reached up to 80 degrees on the surface of the water. With the algae blooms, as the micro-organisms live and eventually die, they decompose in the water and can suck the oxygen out of an area, which can affect fish and wildlife. He added they haven’t noticed any fish-die-offs in mass this season due to the increased blooms.

Lake Sallie water levels. Feet above sea level, ordinary high water level. (Pelican River Watershed District)

Lake Sallie water levels. Feet above sea level, ordinary high water level. (Pelican River Watershed District)

Lake Melissa water levels. Feet above sea level, ordinary high water level. (Pelican River Watershed District)

Lake Melissa water levels. Feet above sea level, ordinary high water level. (Pelican River Watershed District)

Dick Hecock, former administrator of the Pelican River Watershed, said Detroit Lake is well within its normal water level, as it has been for years. He added the reason some residents feel the level is dramatically lower is because the water level in the lake has remained higher than average since about 2018.

“Clearly the water levels have dropped since last July, where they were very high,” said Hecock. “They’ve dropped a little over a foot since that time … and the average range within the open water season is a foot.”

Detroit Lake water levels. Feet above sea level, ordinary high water level. (Pelican River Watershed District)

Detroit Lake water levels. Feet above sea level, ordinary high water level. (Pelican River Watershed District)

Currently, he added we are only slightly below the ordinary high water level for Detroit Lake and we started from a very high level.

“We’ve had a series of high precipitation years, so everybody got accustomed to that,” said Hecock. “And then, all of a sudden, it’s gone back to significantly lower in precipitation and that’s what we’re facing right now.”

He’s also an active member of the Lake Detroiters, a non-profit group that promotes the protection and enhancement of Detroit Lake.

In a Facebook post to the group’s page, Hecock said, “While it appears we are headed lower, we are not yet as low as the lake was in most of the seven of the previous nine years. At present, we are still about six inches higher than the lows of 2012 and 2014.”

On July 18, 2021, the U.S. Department of Agriculture released the results of their recent soil survey that found 63% of Minnesota pastures are currently rated in poor or very poor condition. Additionally, 78% percent of the state’s topsoil moisture has been rated short or very short.

USDA drought monitor. July 20, 2021.

USDA drought monitor. July 20, 2021.

In a July 15 forecast, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration showed that drought conditions are expected to persist in Minnesota through at least Oct. 31.

NOAA drought forecast July 15 to Oct. 31.

NOAA drought forecast July 15 to Oct. 31.

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