Drought in Minnesota

Drought is defined as a period of abnormally dry and/or unusually hot weather sufficiently prolonged for the corresponding deficiency of water to cause a serious hydrologic imbalance.

When a serious hydrologic imbalance occurs, soil moisture reserves, groundwater supplies, lake levels and stream flows are negatively impacted. Water-dependent industries including agriculture, public utilities, forestry and tourism are profoundly affected.

Careful stewardship of Minnesota's water resources is always important. During drought, water resources are particularly stressed and water conservation measures are especially important.

Drought is Easing in Portions of Minnesota

Significant rainfall across much of Minnesota has brought some improvement in drought conditions in parts of the state, and no areas are experiencing worsening conditions. As of October 12:

  • Twenty-seven percent of Minnesota is experiencing severe drought (down from 31 percent last week).
  • Seventeen percent is experiencing extreme drought (down from 18 percent last week).
  • No areas in Minnesota are experiencing exceptional drought (unchanged from last week).

In August, three watersheds in Minnesota entered the drought restrictive phase. The Mississippi River Headwaters watershed, the Rainy River watershed and the Red River watershed had been experiencing extreme to exceptional drought, necessitating further restrictions on water use to protect drinking water supplies. In September, the Mississippi River Headwaters watershed moved from the restrictive phase back to the warning phase. The Rainy River and Red River watersheds remain in the restrictive phase.

Because of significant rain, the Mississippi River Headwaters watershed is now coming out of the warning phase but will remain in the watch phase. Several other watersheds previously came out of the Drought Warning Phase but remain in the Drought Watch Phase:

  • Des Moines
  • Minnesota
  • Missouri Big Sioux
  • Missouri Little Sioux
  • St. Croix
  • Upper Mississippi Iowa Skunk Wapsipinicon

Continued water conservation efforts are still needed.

The DNR will be contacting local governments and water suppliers in areas where conditions have improved enough to change the drought intensity classification and related water use restrictions. Water users, including business and residential users, should watch for information from their city or county government before returning to more water use.

The recent rain has also improved river flows in portions of the state. In some watersheds, the flows have increased to a level that the DNR will be reinstating surface water appropriations that had been suspended earlier in the summer. The DNR will contact individual water appropriations permit holders when those suspensions are lifted.

The entire state entered the drought warning phase in mid-July. Climactic factors that are used to categorize drought, and the possible impacts observed in each category, are explained in the U.S. Drought Monitor’s Drought Classification.

The criteria for designation of a drought restrictive phase are specified in the Minnesota Statewide Drought Plan, and include the drought severity rating and, for the Mississippi River, flow rates at the Brooklyn Park gauge operated by the US Geological Service.

drought intensity 10-12-2021

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Even with recent rainfall, it will take at least four to eight inches of precipitation spread over a period of about one month to significantly alleviate the drought. Soils are more efficiently replenished by multiple rainfall events than by any single heavy rainfall event. Surface water and groundwater respond somewhat differently over time.

Drought is a naturally occurring feature of Minnesota’s climate. Some level of moderate and severe drought typically occurs in the state almost every year for at least a few weeks. Most severe drought in Minnesota is short-lived, but drought in Minnesota can, during very persistent dry conditions, enter the extreme intensity classification. The current drought is not as severe as the historic droughts of 1988-89 or the 1930s, but as it intensified, it has brought significant challenges to many individuals and businesses and has contributed to dangerous wildfire conditions.

Drought conditions elevated fire danger in roughly the northern two-thirds of the state, triggering varying degrees of burning restrictions across all of Minnesota.

See the latest Drought Conditions Report. 

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What Happens in Drought Restrictive Phase

For watersheds in the drought restrictive phase, the DNR and others have taken additional steps, including:

  • Notifying water appropriators with DNR permits that they should minimize non-essential water uses and follow water conservation measures, such as reducing landscape irrigation, using more efficient irrigation equipment, and checking for and repairing water leaks. Water appropriation permit holders can contact the local DNR area hydrologist for technical assistance or with any questions.
  • Notifying public water suppliers within these watersheds to implement water use reduction actions with a goal of reducing water use to 25% above January levels. Residents, businesses and landowners should watch for communications from their municipal or public water supplier for details on local water use reduction actions and restrictions. Restrictions on non-essential water uses (such as outdoor irrigation, car washes, etc.) may be enacted as public water suppliers take steps to achieve water reduction goals.
  • Increasing public awareness of drought conditions.
State Drought Task Force

The Minnesota State Drought Task Force was convened by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) on July 21, 2021. The primary purposes of the Task Force are information sharing, coordination and planning. The first Drought Task Force meeting included updates on current drought status, brief summaries from members about their respective organizations’ drought-related responses, and planning for future Task Force meetings.

Per the Minnesota Statewide Drought Plan, the Minnesota DNR determines state drought phases and responses based on specific climatological and water data. Task Force members may share information and perspectives regarding these factors, but making phase determinations is not a role of the Task Force.

Meeting Summaries and Agendas

Permit Suspensions During Low Flow
suspended appropriations 07-29-2021

Related to drought conditions, but not part of the State Drought Plan, is the requirement to protect instream uses and downstream public water supplies during periods of low flow.

The majority of watersheds in the state have a long-term water gauge that allows the DNR to monitor flow rates. The data collected from these gauges is utilized to quantify base flows as well as peak and low flow conditions. DNR staff continually monitor the flows in these major watersheds to determine when the low flow threshold has been reached. The threshold is based on statistical analysis that calculates what is called the Q90 flow. The Q90 value indicates that 90% of the time in recent decades, stream flow has been greater than that value. In other words, the stream flow has only been that level or below 10% of the time. Q90 is considered protected low flow level in Minnesota and is used for suspending surface water appropriations.

The drought conditions have resulted in several watersheds falling below the low flow threshold that triggers suspension of surface water appropriations.

The DNR’s surface water suspension guidelines identify the many factors that need to be considered for both permit suspension and permit reinstatement. The variability of these natural systems requires a holistic approach that can incorporate a broad array of inputs as part of decision-making. At a minimum, river flows need to above the minimum flow (Q90) for three consecutive days, but not just slightly above the minimum. The flow must be high enough so all surface appropriations do not reduce the flow back below the minimum flow. Precipitation forecasts are also considered when determining whether permits should be re-instated. These careful evaluations help to avoid re-suspending permits shortly after having them reinstated. That pattern would not be good for the aquatic ecosystem and could create frustration or confusion for permit holders.

Suspended Water Appropriations:

 Watershed Name/NumberDate of SuspensionNumber of PermitsWater Appropriation TypesDate of Reinstatement*
suspended appropriations 08-25-2021Watonwan River–3108-25-202115ag. crop irrigation, golf course irrigation, landscape/athletic field irrigation, basin level maintenance, construction non-dewatering 
suspended appropriations 08-25-2021Mississippi River-Lake Pepin–3808-25-20219ag. crop irrigation, nursery irrigation 
suspended appropriations 08-24-2021Lower St. Croix River–3708-24-202111ag. crop irrigation, sod farm irrigation, dust control, golf course irrigation, landscape/athletic field irrigation10-07-2021
suspended appropriations 08-24-2021Snake River-3608-24-20215ag. crop irrigation, sod farm irrigation, dust control, golf course irrigation, landscape/athletic field irrigation10-07-2021
suspended appropriations 08-24-2021Mississippi River-St. Cloud–1708-17-202125Ag. crop irrigation, sod farm irrigation, landscape/athletic field irrigation, dust control, construction non-dewatering 
suspended appropriations 08-17-2021Lake Superior-North–108-17-20212Golf course irrigation, sand and gravel washing10-14-2021
suspended appropriations 07-29-2021Red Lake River–6308-04-202115ag./food processing, ag. crop irrigation, nursery irrigation 
suspended appropriations 07-29-2021Clearwater River–6608-04-20217**wild rice irrigation, ag. crop irrigation, dust control, golf course irrigation, pipeline and tank testing 
suspended appropriations 07-29-2021Two River–7008-04-20213ag. crop irrigation, golf course irrigation 
suspended appropriations 07-29-2021Thief River–6508-02-20212golf course irrigation, basin level maintenance 
suspended appropriations 07-29-2021Wild Rice River–6008-02-20216ag. crop irrigation, golf course irrigation, construction non-dewatering09-10-2021
suspended appropriations 07-29-2021Roseau River–7108-02-20211basin level maintenance 
suspended appropriations 07-29-2021Mississippi River-Sartell–1508-01-202114golf course irrigation, ag. crop irrigation, construction non-dewatering09-09-2021
suspended appropriations 07-29-2021Sauk River–1608-01-202132golf course irrigation, ag. crop irrigation, construction non-dewatering, dust control09-09-2021
suspended appropriations 07-29-2021Little Fork River–7607-28-20213sand and gravel washing, dust control, construction dewatering 
suspended appropriations 07-29-2021Rainy River-Headwaters–7207-28-20211construction non-dewatering, dust control 
suspended appropriations 07-29-2021Big Fork River–7707-28-20212golf course irrigation, basin level maintenance 
suspended appropriations 07-29-2021Mississippi River-Grand Rapids–907-27-202118ag. crop irrigation, wild rice irrigation, golf course irrigation, other power generation, dust control, mine processing, construction non-dewatering, sand and gravel washing 
suspended appropriations 07-29-2021Sandhill River–6107-24-20218ag. crop irrigation, golf course irrigation 
suspended appropriations 07-29-2021Mississippi River-Brainerd–1007-13-202118wild rice irrigation, ag. crop irrigation, sod farm irrigation, basin level maintenance, sand and gravel washing, other non-crop irrigation, cemetery irrigation 
suspended appropriations 07-29-2021Pine River–1107-13-20213ag. crop irrigation, wild rice irrigation 
suspended appropriations 07-29-2021Rapid River–7807-13-20211wild rice irrigation 
suspended appropriations 07-29-2021Rainy River-Baudette–7907-13-20212construction non-dewatering, snow/ice making 
suspended appropriations 07-29-2021St. Louis River–307-11-20216golf course irrigation 
suspended appropriations 07-29-2021Bois de Sioux River–5407-06-20213ag. crop irrigation09-08-2021
suspended appropriations 07-29-2021Mustinka River–5507-06-20215ag. crop irrigation, other water level maintenance, golf course irrigation09-08-2021
suspended appropriations 07-29-2021Crow Wing River–1206-28-20217ag. crop irrigation, landscape/athletic field irrigation, golf course irrigation 
suspended appropriations 07-29-2021Redeye River–1306-28-202110ag. crop irrigation 
*Surface water appropriation permits are reinstated when flows in the watershed increase above the minimum flow threshold (Q90) including the cumulative instantaneous total of all suspended appropriations. **Seven surface water appropriation permits were reinstated on September 20 based on the Clearwater River Wild Rice Allocation plan administered by the Red Lake Watershed District that authorizes appropriation during specific flow regimes in the watershed. Seven other surface water appropriation permits continue to be suspended until flows increase above the Q90, including the permitted pump rates within the Clearwater River watershed.
Low Lake Levels and River Flows

The lack of precipitation has reduced water levels in many lakes and rivers. Water level fluctuations are natural. Occasional low water levels can be beneficial to ecosystems, but they can affect people, recreation and businesses that are dependent on water.

Lake and river levels are dependent on the amount of precipitation an area receives, how much of that moisture is contributed by runoff, how much water is recharged or discharged through groundwater, and how much water evaporates.

Very few lakes and rivers are regulated by water control structures. For those situations where control structures are present, they are operated according to the authorized project purposes and associated operating plans for those structures.

Manipulation of lake levels, such as adding or removing stop logs at lake outlets, requires DNR authorization under a public water works permit. Any unauthorized lake level manipulation is illegal.

Water appropriation permits that withdraw water directly from lakes are subject to suspension when lake levels go below specified protective elevations.

What Can I Do?
  • Take active measures to reduce indoor and outdoor water use. Ideas include avoiding lawn watering, addressing any plumbing leaks, and running only full loads in your washing machine and dishwasher.
  • Longer range options include investing in water efficient appliances and installing drought tolerant landscaping.
  • Residents and landowners should watch for communications from their municipal or public water supplier for details on local water use reduction actions and restrictions.
  • For additional ideas to conserve water please see DNR’s water conservation webpage.

Drought Impacts

Drought Monitoring

Drought Planning