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.

DNR Announces Drought Warning

With 72 percent of Minnesota now experiencing severe drought and 18 percent experiencing extreme drought, the state has entered the drought warning phase. With this designation, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and others are taking additional steps.

The warning phase for drought occurs when a significant portion of the state passes thresholds for severe drought conditions at major watersheds. We have reached this threshold. The warning phase for public water suppliers using the Mississippi River is also triggered when stream flows in the Twin Cities Metropolitan Area have dropped below designated levels. We expect this threshold to be tripped in the coming days. The thresholds for drought watch and warning conditions are specified in the Minnesota Statewide Drought Plan. drought intensity 07-15-2021

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 does occasionally enter the extreme intensity classification.

Under current conditions, it will take at least three to five inches of precipitation spread over a period of about two weeks to significantly alleviate 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 conditions have elevated fire danger in roughly the northern two-thirds of the state.

See the latest Drought Conditions Report. 


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What Happens in Drought Warning

The Minnesota Statewide Drought Plan identifies specific actions that need to be taken during a drought warning phase. These actions include:

  • Convening the State Drought Task Force, a panel of state, federal, regional and local experts with water-related responsibilities. The Task Force was last convened in 2012.
  • Notifying water appropriators with DNR permits that they should 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 that it is time to implement their water-use reduction actions. Residents and landowners should watch for communications from their municipal or public water supplier for details on local water use reduction actions and restrictions.
  • Temporarily suspending or modifying some water appropriations in response to low stream flow conditions as necessary. As of July 15, 2021 the DNR has suspended water appropriations in 10 watersheds. Suspension of more surface water appropriations is expected, unless there is a dramatic change in the current precipitation pattern.
Permit Suspensions During Low Flow

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.

drought intensity 07-15-2021

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