Iowa's Wild Weather | Episode
Nov 23, 2021 | 49 min

As drought conditions threaten Iowa communities, residents are forced to cope with the fallout from this type of natural disaster. This project examines the causes of and responses to the increasing frequency and intensity of droughts in the Midwest and the role climate change plays.


(nature sounds)


The common thread is to try to save what they have, to save their town, to maintain their way of life.


At one point in the last year, 99% of the state of Iowa was in some sort of a drought classification.


The water is kind of a gift. It's not necessarily ours, but we like to claim what our fair share is.


We talk about dryness begets dryness and wetness begets wetness. If you don't have any moisture for these thunderstorms to work off of they won't go in that region or they'll just fizzle out. And this is what we saw last year as drought conditions started to form.


A drought sets in slowly. The dry conditions silently stealing precious moisture from the soil. The depletion may take months or even years. And by the time the drought's impact is apparent, the damage has already been done. Recovery from drought can last longer than it took to take hold.


And a drought doesn't make the same noise as a flood or severe storms. It slowly dries up dreams.


The state of Iowa ranks second only behind California for the top ten agriculture producing states. In 2018, the value of Iowa's agricultural industry was valued at just over $25 billion, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

(nature sounds)

In that same year, drought conditions began to creep into the Midwest. But its impact in Iowa would not be felt for three years. Scientists put much of the blame on climate change and its role in the increasing frequency and intensity of droughts in the Midwest. Many have banded together to solve the problem to, as much as they can, take control over what's next.







Funding for this program was provided by Friends, the Iowa PBS Foundation, as well as generations of families and friends who feel passionate about the programs they watch on Iowa PBS.

Funding for this program was provided by the Gilchrist Foundation, founded by Jocelyn Gilchrist, furthering the philanthropic interests of the Gilchrist family in wildlife and conservation, the arts and public broadcasting and disaster relief.

And by the Claude P. Small, Kathryn Small Cousins and William Carl Cousins Fund at the Quad Cities Community Foundation to support nature programming on Iowa PBS.



A 50 mile journey west of Des Moines lands you in the town of Casey. Founded in 1869, the town was named by the contractors bringing the railroad through Iowa. The town straddles the Adair and Guthrie County line, with a population of 387 as of the 2020 census.


Lifelong Casey resident Nicholas Lindberg feels strongly about his town and his roots. When he was just 18 years old, he ran for and won a seat on Casey's city council. Now 23, Lindberg is learning on the job as he makes his way through his first term as Mayor.

Nicholas Lindberg: All I can say is, if you're from a small town you know. It's not what a lot of these large town people think, oh it's just a small town full of grumpy old people or quiet people who just don't want to be involved. No, that's completely opposite.


Like many rural communities, Lindberg is facing challenges brought on by Casey's shrinking pool of residents. A small population results in a smaller tax base, which in turn reduces the amount of funds Lindberg and other city officials have available to meet the needs of Casey's residents. To make matters worse, expanding drought conditions moved across the Midwest in 2020, putting an immense amount of stress on the town's aging water infrastructure.

Lindberg: When I first took office we were starting to get into the pandemic and then as the year went on the drought began to set on. At first we weren't too worried because we've had droughts before. However, as it progressed we began to get concerned because our wells are older. We have been looking at doing studies and other maintenance to try to rehabilitate them or get new ones.

In the summer of 2020, the Casey public works director informed Mayor Lindberg and the city council the amount of water flowing into the town's water wells was slowing down, reducing the amount of available drinking water. As the drought intensified, so did the dire situation for Casey residents.

Lindberg: At first everybody was kind of hoping that this would just resolve itself like all the other past droughts had done. But it soon became clear that we needed extra help.

Lindberg and city officials issued water conservation orders for residents and notified the Iowa Department of Natural Resources the town of Casey, Iowa was running out of water.

Lindberg: We began to prepare and assume that we would eventually may need to close off the town's water supply to help rebuild some of our tower from the well's production we had.

Lindberg enlisted the help of the Iowa Rural Water Association, a non-profit group that provides technical assistance, training and emergency response for 600 water and wastewater operators across the state of Iowa.

Zeb McFarland: Last year with Casey it was one of our first systems that was having troubles and the first thing went on site to see what the issues were and what kind of problems they were having.


To help Iowa communities. McFarland depends on the solid working relationships the IRWA has between federal, state and local officials to help communities with non-emergencies as well.

McFarland: We communicate with the USDA on a daily, weekly basis and try to relay what needs we're seeing, what projects we're seeing. And they'll do the same, they'll call us and say hey, do you know any of the history on this town? What have you seen? What do you think their needs are?

In Casey's situation, their month's long emergency needed a quick solution.

McFarland: One of the things we do is we work with the Iowa DNR, I made a phone call to the field office and was able to tell them and relay what the system was going through, what kind of problems there is and what we're looking at doing for a response and that comes into seeing if you can fast track permits. In Casey's instance, we're looking at a well. So I asked the DNR if when their engineer gets all the construction permits written can you fast track this for us so we can get it out because the town is running out of water.

As the drought intensified, the situation in Casey became more urgent. Water restrictions were put in place. Mandatory overnight water shutoffs were instituted. Neighboring communities were reluctant to sell any water to Casey because of their own drought concerns. An emergency well was needed to help get more water flowing into town. But to do that, officials needed proper permitting for drilling to begin.

McFarland: The DNR is very good and very responsive to our needs. So they absolutely guaranteed we'll have a 24-hour turnaround on this permit, we'll get it back to you as soon as possible and yes, we'll do everything we can to help these people.

Mayor Lindberg notes the quick partnership between state agencies and the community was the key to helping the town of Casey.

Lindberg: Come August we put out a word for water conservation and within that first month we knew our community was helping us, they were right behind us, they were conserving water the best they could, buying us the time we needed to get a concrete solution and get this through. And what I didn't know I asked and we got advice from the DNR, from the Iowa Rural Water Association and my staff. Everybody rallied together and that's why I really like small towns like this.


Lindberg: I dare say that small towns, they're more close knit, they're more engaged than a lot of these larger cities are and that is really what keeps us going. We're still here and we're going to be here for a long time to come.


McFarland: It is very tough because a lot of these small towns are shrinking rather than growing. They don't have that same tax base as they once did. Finding that money to do these projects and to get people to believe in your project is an uphill battle. And it's one that is happening all over the state right now.


Lindberg: Incidents like these happen and we have to be ready. We have to do what we can to prepare for it. And all we can do is do our best to meet it as it comes, to prepare for it and to ultimately get through it, get our people through it.


While a drought is not as visual as other weather events, it is no less impactful. It is a disaster in slow motion.


What's interesting this year is we're in a drought, we're also seeing a lack of severe weather. Now, this is tied hand-in-hand because if you don't have thunderstorms to produce severe weather you're not going to get any rainfall and we get dry.

The drought Iowa is experiencing in 2021 got its start in 2018. Ample subsoil moisture from the three wet years prior kept growing conditions stable as the chances for rain evaporated.

Dr. Justin Glisan: 2019 the 7th wettest fall on record, we start to see West Central precipitation deficits begin to appear, very small, but that is where we started to see the drought conditions. So the interesting thing is, is when you look at 30-day precipitation deficits from wintertime getting into spring you're going from the driest part of the year into the start of the wettest part. You're starting to drop off pretty dry days and add days that should be really wet climatologically versus 30 days, 60, 90 days ago. So within a week you can see precipitation deficits just stick out like a sore thumb.

Dr. Justin Glisan is the State Climatologist of Iowa. Glisan's job involves collecting climate data for weekly weather reports and the U.S. Drought Monitor. He also advises the Iowa Secretary of Agriculture on climatological issues impacting the state's agricultural sector.

Glisan: And it is when you look at pictures of the dry pastures and the dust and the cattle and you hear the stories of the farmers and ranchers out there it breaks your heart. But I mean, yeah, when you see D4 on a map those are historic percentiles, meaning that we haven't seen these conditions in 100 years.


According to Glisan, different types of drought impact rural communities in different ways. A meteorological drought is one based on rainfall deficits and lengths of dry periods. If the dryness continues, a shift to hydrological drought appears. Impacts to the overall water supply become visual as the level of streams and ponds gets lower.


A third category of drought is signaled by subsoil moisture levels decreasing and an agricultural drought sets in. Farmers and ranchers see lower groundwater levels as reservoir levels shrink

The fourth type of drought is socioeconomic. According to the National Weather Service, socioeconomic drought occurs when demand exceeds supply as a result of weather related deficit in rainfall. Glisan notes, climate change could have a hand to play in the increasing length and intensity of significant weather events.

Glisan: As climatologists we use the last full three decades to give us a baseline to compare weather events, climatological events. Was this the driest year on record? How strong was this tornado outbreak versus other outbreaks that we've had in the past? Was this the most destructive derecho that we've seen across the state? Climatologically we expect one derecho every two years statistically. So yes, we are seeing wetter extremes. Drought conditions, we see the mega drought in the Southwestern part of the United States. And then the polar vortices that form, colder extremes and warmer extremes. So we are seeing an increase in the extreme nature of events that we are seeing, yes.

One asset Dr. Glisan and other climatologists rely on to study drought patterns is the U.S. Drought Monitor. A tool multiple federal agencies are responsible for creating, the weekly report uses data from USDA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Drought Mitigation Center. Climatological data is collected to calculate the severity of drought across the U.S. Drought information is broken out into five different categories, abnormally dry, which shows areas that may be going into or are coming out of drought. And four levels of drought, moderate D1, severe D2, extreme D3 and exceptional D4.

Glisan: So, the drought depiction is very subjective in certain moisture fields. So that is why when we talk about the drought monitor process we want a convergence of evidence, all those moisture variables that we use, subsoil precipitation, humidity outside, temperature, stream flows. All those, we want all of those things to point towards one category and more often than not they don't. That is where you get discrepancies.

Created in 1999 at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the U.S. Drought Monitor has many purposes. The USDA uses the Drought Monitor to trigger disaster declarations. The Farm Service Agency uses it to help determine eligibility for their livestock forage program. And the Internal Revenue Service uses it for tax deferral on forced livestock sales when ranchers have to sell cattle due to drought. State and local officials use the Drought Monitor in conjunction with local data on dry conditions to trigger drought responses. While the U.S. Drought Monitor is a great source of data, nature is in charge of creating and changing it.

(train whistle blowing)

Glisan: You do get timely rainfalls. The data point I use is the D3 drought in Southeastern Iowa in August of 2018. While you had very, very wet conditions across the northern part of the state, you go two to three months after peak of drought, that part of the state had anywhere from 200% to 300% of above normal precipitation. So, luck perhaps, but the atmosphere drives the narrative. We can't change the weather. So you get a farmer that is in D2, they get a thunderstorm that pops up over their house, they get 2 to 3 inches of rainfall in let's say an hour and a half, it's not going to all soak in. That's not luck, that's just the ground is hard and it rained too hard.


Glisan notes the data collected since the creation of the Drought Monitor has helped officials project a path for future weather patterns.

Glisan: So we, again, were coming off 2 wet years. If you look at the 2012 drought we were actually coming of off 3 to 4 pretty wet years. So there is a cycle in which we do get wet and we stay wet. On the flip side of that we are dry and we stay dry. Now, we're not in a situation in which we're going to approach the 2012 drought or 1988 drought as we see things right now. If we look at the short-term outlooks and given precipitation deficits going back last year where the drought conditions started, West Central Iowa, anywhere from 16 to 18 inches below average. August 2020 was the third driest on record. So we do have longer term precipitation deficits.


The drought of 2012 was more severe than the drought being experienced this year. Dry conditions began in 2011 and by the time it reached its peak, over 75% of the state was in D3 or extreme drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.


The drought also was the longest in Iowa history lasting 151 weeks when the rain finally returned in June of 2014. Before that, the worst drought was in 1988. And before that, it was 1979. According to the National Center for Environmental Information, drought ranks third as the most destructive natural disaster in Iowa. From 1980 to 2021, severe drought caused nearly $20 billion in damage.


Besides the direct and indirect economic impacts, drought can spur other disasters. The dry conditions can be ideal breeding for invasive insects like grasshoppers and locusts. Drought can increase wildfire risk, like what the Western U.S. experienced in 2020 and 2021. And extended dryness can change ecosystems altering farm production practices.


When asked if climate change is part of the rise in weather events, Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig acknowledges a correlation between the two.

Mike Naig: I think, again, we know that weather is changing. We know that in a state like Iowa we're seeing an increase in temperatures, we're seeing more frequent, higher intensity storms and weather events that are more persistent. When it's dry it's dry, when it's wet it's wet. And those are things that we have to deal with on the ground. And what does that mean for a producer? Well, again, it's about how do we manage the land appropriately and do we have the right risk mitigation tools in place for them from a policy standpoint. So I think those are things, look, weather has been a factor in agriculture for as long as we've been doing it. That's not new. What is new perhaps is the frequency and the intensity of those events. But I think we're well-positioned to evolve like we need to, to accommodate for that.

(wind blowing)

By August of 2021, 83% of the state was in some sort of drought, with over one-third of Iowa experiencing severe to extreme drought. Those conditions took a toll on farming and agriculture.


Glisan: Now, you talk about drought as basically the absence of moisture. It starts off meteorologically, lack of rainfall, meteorological drought. Then we get into agricultural drought where we start to see moisture stress on corn and beans, especially this time of year. Field scouting last year prior to the derecho in West Central Iowa we started to see soybean leaves flipping over in the fields in the morning time. So where you would see basically emerald green fields if we had enough moisture, you started to see gray fields.

Glisan: And then you start to get pineapple corn as the leaves on the lower part of the corn stalk firing, starting to show us that we're running out of subsoil moisture, the crop is expending it. Corn needs 25 inches during its physiological growth. So as the faucet kind of turned off mid-May into June we get into lots of warm, relative humidity, windy days, atmosphere developed a thirst, pulls any moisture that it can get. The crop is transpiring. So those precipitation deficits are still there. It takes a lot to chip into those.


In 2019, Iowa ranked first in exports of corn and second in soybeans among the top ten agricultural states. The long dry spells can make trouble for row crops throughout the growing season. Certain commodities can be stunted or not even break through the hard, dry surface of the soil. As the drought worsened in 2021, the dry conditions slowed development of corn and soybeans. That may have lowered weights and yields for producers, potentially drying up profits. For cattle producers, dry scorched pastures limited grazing opportunities for livestock, increasing feed costs.

Naig: It's tough. You know, you go walk a farm, go visit with somebody who stepped out their back door one day after a storm event or a flood event and saw everything that they had built perhaps over their lifetime or certainly their career wiped away or laying in a pile. And they often times don't know where to start. But again, it's something where I feel a responsibility and an opportunity as the Secretary of Ag, but also as government being a partner in helping, helping folks to make that first step or how can they start to rebuild. And again, it's not that anybody is ever made whole with any of these government programs or with an insurance payment. But it's about trying to get through. It's about trying to start the rebuilding process and farm again the next year. But I've seen some incredible stories of people who have lost everything and they have been able to work back and be stronger than ever. So that is part of being Iowa, that is part of Iowa agriculture, and it is a special thing to see.


Near the Western Iowa town of Avoca, Regional Water fulfills the water needs of 15 nearby communities and several large animal feeding operations in the area. Regional Water's drought stress system is now facing a battle of priorities.


Nicholas Gaul: Once upon a time, rural water systems, Regional Water in particular came to this area because we were a source of good quality water. Everyone had a well. That wasn’t the problem. Everyone had all the water they needed if they wanted to drink it. Now, they're not looking at us just for quality, but they're looking for us for the supply to exist at all. There's -- it used to be most of the people who would call in asking to get onto our water system, they had a well already but they were tired of how hard it was, they wanted better quality water, they just moved to an acreage from the city and they missed having good water. Now, most of the calls we get are our well ran dry, we're pumping water and we're not getting anything. Can you please get out to us because the water physically isn't there? And that has been a change for us going from a model where people are coming to us because they want good water to it still wants to be good water but the alternative is increasingly no water at all.

With the exception of large-scale animal feeding operations for hog producers, the bulk of the customers Regional Water serves are considered to be of lower socioeconomic status and have smaller annual incomes. As Regional Water works to meet the needs of all the users in the area, rate increases associated with the work have affected water customers differently.

We have people who call in and say that they have no power over the price of which pigs sell. And I understand that there's market players in effect who do get to decide that, or at least have some influence over that. But at the end of the day, if the water costs more money, the pig costs more money.

According to Regional Water, wells in the area are becoming harder to operate as dropping water levels leave treatment facilities struggling to maintain adequate services. One option is to drill more wells, which solves a problem for the short-term, but it is not a permanent solution.


Gaul: The worst case scenario absolutely would be that I get the phone call from the treatment plant and they say, the wells are straight up dry, that they're making, that we turn on the motors and they're just making sucking noises like you get when you run a straw at the bottom of a milkshake that is empty, only there is a 20 horsepower motor hooked to that straw.


Another option is to dig fewer and deeper wells, which brings it own set of issues. While regional water sees drilling deeper as a definable long-term source, the makeup of the water presents contamination issues. At deeper depths, the water contains more harmful elements than found in shallow wells. For the water to be safe for human consumption, rural water treatment facilities like Regional Water will have to start treating the water using an expensive filtration system.

Gaul: Probably around $2 million will be the cost to drill one of these deep wells. And that deep well, if we use it in the treatment plant we have right now, it will let us use about 20% deep water to 80% shallow. But it's a ratio that is fixed by chemistry, not by the physics of the water. If we use more water than that from the deep without changing out treatment plant -- if we use more water than that without changing our treatment plant, the water quality is going to be unacceptable. People are going to smell something foul in their taps and I would not be pleased to be selling that water and I'm not, unless it was the direst of crisis, I don't think the Iowa DNR would want me selling that water.

To complicate matters, the reverse osmosis treatment process currently in use also produces a toxic brine, creating disposal issues for rural municipalities.

McFarland: Whenever you're looking for a different water source, if you're looking to try to tape into a deeper aquifer, it's a gamble because you don't really know what you're going to get until you drill down there and start sampling that water. You may have, in your shallow well you may have some nitrate problems that you have to deal with, but as you go deeper you might have iron and manganese and some towns fight arsenic. It's always a new set of problems.

McFarland says, going the route of changing sources from groundwater to surface water is also full of challenges.

McFarland: And then it, you know, totally changes everything if you try to go from groundwater to surface water. That is a whole new set of problems and treatment processes that you have to have set up and designed for it.

(water rushing)

McFarland: Surface water is when it comes out of a lake or a river. So you've got a lot of microorganisms that live in that water you've got to remove out of that water plus algae, plus there's a plethora of stuff that live in that water when it's on the surface. Groundwater you don't have that as much because it can be a couple hundred feet underground and it doesn't support all the life in that water. So it's not always easy just to go from this water source to this water source. It can be overwhelming to try to change and to have a plant that is set up for that change.


One tool rural communities have been promoting to slow a drought's impact is conservation. Voluntary and mandatory water restrictions help municipalities better manage what water is available in their system.


Gaul: When people for just the most automatic reasons reduce their water usage we feel that here. If people conserved water on a broader basis to the extent that was possible, water conservation replaces wells, water conservation buys us more time before we need to make larger upgrades, expenses in the system. I don't think we'll entirely be able to conserve our way out of this problem, but conservation buys us a lot of time and time is money and time is, sometimes time is more precious than money. I don't care if somebody gave me $10 million today, I could not have the water for them tomorrow.


Besides locating new sources of water, officials in rural water districts are searching for better ways to conserve the existing sources on hand. New emerging technology upgrades to water meters and customers' homes will help water districts measure usage more precisely. The upgrades also will help pinpoint problems more quickly, saving thousands of gallons of water annually. Andrew Gacke is the city superintendent for Ashton, Iowa.

Andrew Gacke: Absolutely, so with the new projects we're getting new water meters. It's going to be better accountability on the water that is being used. We'll have an alarm system that will give us the alarms when needed on water high usage or a toilet leaking, anything that you can pretty much think of, cold weather, temperatures, it's all going to give me alarms in the morning. So if there's any alarms I can check it in the morning and notify the residents. Another benefit of this is that the customer will be able to see a portal that they will be able to see what their water system is doing also within their home.


Ashton, Iowa joins numerous communities across the Hawkeye state looking for solutions to fix or replace aging water infrastructure. Officials are learning, the better the solution, the more expensive it is. In 2016, Gacke informed the Ashton city council the city's existing storage facility was nearing the end of its 40-year lifespan. The structure had started to leak and was in need of being replaced. But navigating the problem was slow going.

Gacke: Roughly five years we first noticed that it was leaking, the tank. And about three years ago we probably started getting a little bit more serious with the council on getting it taken care of. And about a year ago right before COVID it finally lifted off and we got an engineer on it. And through COVID it kind of pushed us back another year. So we're about five years into it right now.

Other issues Ashton needed to address was aging equipment and every residential meter. The price tag for a new water stem for the city is nearly $2 million, an amount officials in the community of 436 have a hard time finding.

Gacke: Money never goes as far as what it should anymore. We've got a long ways to go with a project that should have cost $500,000. Now it's going to cost us at least $600,000 just for a tank. So you've still got the pump station and everything else to go along with it.


Gacke and others began looking for federal funds to help offset the cost of the project. In September of 2021, Ashton officials were awarded $1 million to help replace and upgrade the town's drinking water system from USDA's Water and Waste Disposal Loan and Grant Program.

Tom Vilsack: There are a variety of different ways in which we provide assistance in terms of water. In some cases we are basically creating access to water. In some cases we're dealing with a wastewater treatment system or a drainage system or we may be dealing with a storm water system. All of this is important in terms of quality of life, in terms of the ability of communities to attract businesses to the community, the ability of the community to service the needs of their citizens, the ability to expand population, the ability to ensure safe drinking water. All of that is tied into our water programs.


Gacke: It's a good feeling to have a big project like this get completed or started. At the same time, I understand how much it's going to raise costs for everybody to pay for it. So it's nice that we can get a little bit of help from USDA to help pay for that fund.

The Iowa Rural Water Association also plays a role in helping rural communities secure funding for infrastructure projects. By using a vast network of connections across the country, Zeb McFarland and IRWA communicate with civil and political leaders on behalf of rural communities to get their project noticed.

McFarland: One of the things you've got to remember is all these senators, politicians, they get asked for money every day, everything is important, everything has a need, everybody has their own project that they want done. So what these support letters do is let that politician actually read a letter from small town Iowa and to better relay how important of a service we provide and how important it is to help them to be able to relay that and to put it in a decision makers’ hands. That letter is huge.

(nature sounds)

According to Clean Water Iowa, a program within the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, the yearly average rainfall for the Hawkeye state is between 28 and 36 inches. At this amount, one acre of land could receive anywhere from 700,000 to 1 million gallons of rain in a year. To help keep this resource in the ground, state and local officials encourage farmers and ranchers to implement conservation measures in the hopes of lessening the impact of future droughts.

Glisan: Yeah, cover crops are tremendous and we have seen an explosion of farmers in the state who are planting cover crops. Lock in subsoil moisture, if we do get into drought conditions and you have roots that can hold in that soil also locks in water vapor. It's a way to keep that moisture in the sponge. Also, given that our trends are showing us higher intensity rainfall events more often, if you have cover crops on those fields you're not going to lose that soil, you're not going to get into nitrate loss, but you're also acting to sequester carbon within the soil. The soil as part of the ecosystem is a great repository for carbon. As we move into the growing season plants start to pull carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere as they start to grow. So having cover crops on that ground acts in multiple ways and it's beneficial to farmers and I think farmers are really taking advantage of putting cover crops in. Also, we talk about edge of field practices such as no till. You keep residue on top of that soil, you're also locking it in. So you're keeping the soil where it should be. And farmers are, it has been remarkable to see the excitement of just these little things that we can do individually have an impact on the state and on agriculture.


Besides helping conserve the quantity of water in a drought, cover crops have been found to be beneficial for the quality of water across the state as well. In May of 2021, the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship announced a cost share program for farmers who planted cover crops like rye or oats for the first time.


Naig: Farmers have been dealing with weather for as long as we have been farming. And the variability is something that is a reality every single year. Some years too wet, some years too dry. And I think what we look at is what are the tools that farmers have to help improve resiliency? And one of those things we absolutely like as you look at tillage, reduced tillage, we think that has got a moisture impact and cover crops do a good job of being able to hold some of that moisture in place as well. And those are things that, again, those are good for lots of reasons, from a soil health standpoint, from a soil erosion prevention, from a water quality standpoint. There's multiple levels of benefit here that farmers can get from these practices. But resiliency is what we've got to be looking at and that is in how we use the land but also the tools that we use to improve crop production and to make us more resilient and be able to withstand some of this weather variability. So there's no one magic solution to this. This is how do you manage your system? How do you manage your farm with those tools that you've got at your disposal, the things that makes sense in your operation?

(cows mooing)

Livestock outnumber people five to one in the Northwest Iowa community of Rock Valley. So when the Sioux County town of just over 4,000 entered extreme drought conditions in the spring of 2021, Rock Valley Rural Water needed a plan to help keep one of the state's most productive agricultural sectors in business.

Lyle Remmerde: As far as groundwater and subsoil moisture I've probably never seen it worse. People at -- contractors and stuff like that say too they go down six, eight, ten feet and it's powder dry, which I can't ever remember before all the way down.


Lyle Remmerde and his son co-own Remmerde Farms, a 5,000 head cattle operation south of Rock Valley. They are the third and fourth generations to work on the farm.

Remmerde: Actually even before that, so it's right at 100 years that somebody has been, in our family has been doing that and it has kind of become a way of life. And it's good. It has been very enjoyable. There's been some trials.. But it has been very enjoyable.

(nature sounds)

Remmerde is also on the board of Rock Valley Rural Water, which gives him the ability to be a voice for agriculture when it comes to decision-making on the district's water needs.

Remmerde: 75% of the water supply by the rural water district goes to livestock and Sioux County itself between dairy and livestock is just short of a half a million head of cattle in Sioux County. And I would guess we probably supply a fifth of the rural water in Sioux County.


Remmerde: We kind of look out for each other, the city of Rock Valley is on a little bit different water than what we are rural water in the neighboring districts. We realize that if one gets into trouble, we're really there to help everybody else out. So that makes quite a bit of difference. And we realize that water is kind of a gift. It's not necessarily ours but we like to claim what our fair share is and that becomes difficult to say whose it is and whose it isn't I guess. And we're finding that throughout the United States.

Rock Valley Rural Water serves as a supplemental water source for agricultural and livestock operations in Sioux County. The association takes advantage of an old sand quarry adjacent to its well field to treat its water. The quarry acts as a natural filtration system, slowly recharging the aquifer that serves Rock Valley's wells.

(water rushing)

Surface water from the nearby creek fills the pit, which helps Rock Valley customers as a secondary source of water when drought conditions worsened over the summer.

(nature sounds)

Remmerde: The drought would continue to persist over a long period of time and to be proactive to some of those things, which is our responsibility as a board, but sometimes that takes forms that the general public probably wouldn't understand as far as being forward-thinking enough and what those restrictions could look like at a certain instance. But in a severe drought case, we talked before that just to be incredible difficult to get water where it needs to go if we can't normally draw it from our normal sources. And to expand those sources and to get the politicians and boards on board in order to maybe cut a few corners if we need to in order to get the water where it needs to go because once we're in the actual midst of a severe drought it becomes incredibly difficult to get that done in a little while's time.

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Over the summer, Rock Valley Rural Water was facing severe and extreme drought conditions, while simultaneously working on long-term plans for managing future droughts. Remmerde knows implementing conservation measures could be difficult for the livestock industry.

Remmerde: And that is one of the things too, humans can ration water considerably and cut out a lot of things that they don't have to do to conserve water, while consumption of livestock, the water consumption it is what it is and you just can't curtail that. You just can't say, well you're only going to drink half the amount of water. It's not feasible. So that is one of the things that you just really can't change. So we need to plan for those things and see if we can stay ahead of the curve just a little bit.

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The agency purchased ground and began digging new wells to meet future needs. Use of the water from these additional wells faces approval from the DNR, which must test the quality of the water to determine how it needs to be treated.

Naig: If you are in a shortage situation, how do you prioritize the usages? We hear about this in other parts of the country, we hear about it in California where there is irrigation and places like that. We don't always think of that here. But I think that is something that we will increasingly have to think about, especially in situation where you've got shallow wells. And what do we need to be looking at there? But that is part of resiliency, even for those livestock producers is, well in the face of water shortages what would you do knowing, as we all would believe that people first when it comes to water, agriculture second and what does that reality mean for producers?

Predictions by meteorologists at the U.S. Drought Monitor see the potential for the current conditions to persist into next year for some parts of the country. Until then, Iowa rural water districts have to continue the delicate balance between tight municipal funds, satisfying the needs of their customers and complying with state and federal water regulations.


Farmers worried about potential losses due to the drought towards the end of the summer of 2021, just enough rain fell at just the right time to give parched crops a last minute boost before harvest.


Despite double digit subsoil moisture deficits in some areas, many farmers reported a record number of bushels per acre for both corn and soybeans for the 2021 harvest. Ample rain showers in late October brought much needed moisture to fields and streams across Iowa, improving soil conditions for next year.

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Naig: When we think about how farmers have to deal with this variability and the intensity and the frequency of severe weather events, we also, we think about that through the lens of conservation, the incorporation of things like cover crops and reduced tillage, no till. Those are things that help with soil health and that prevent soil erosion, they help with holding water in place. We've got some innovation that is coming in the conservation space around drainage water management. How do I take some of that water, get it off the land when I need it to dry out but hold onto some of it and use it for irrigation when I need it? That is a piece of innovation that we're actually demonstrating and piloting in the state of Iowa today.


Secretary Naig says advancements and new technology can be a potent tool in drought mitigation.


Naig: And then we think about all the innovation that crop protection companies have brought and what is happening in the seed genetic space and with biologicals and nutrient management. These are exciting things. Precision agriculture, these will bring solutions to farmers as well to help them. Again, this is about being resilient in the face of changing weather, changing markets and trying to adapt. It's something that Iowa and Iowa farmers are very well positioned to do. Why do I know that? Because we've done it in the past. And it will be essential to our success as a state and certainly as an agriculture well into the future.