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Effects of drought fading, although more rain needed

(MCT) CARLYLE, Ill. — Vern Knapp watched in August as farmers were plowing under cornfields in the Greenville area, which at the time was one of the driest areas in Illinois.

Looking back, that scenario would be hard to believe as Greenville finished 2012 with the most rain in the state, said Knapp, a senior hydrologist with the Illinois State Water Survey.

“Then five months later, it was among the wettest,” Knapp said. “We had more variability than we’ve seen with any other drought.”

As bad as the drought seemed, only three locations in the state experienced the historically worst flows of water to keep them filled, Knapp said Monday during a Kaskaskia Watershed Association Inc. summit about protecting valuable resources.

Lake Decatur was among the areas setting records, with Knapp saying at one point that it had zero water flow coming in for 20 consecutive days, the worst in 100 years of records. Other areas experiencing similar conditions were near Springfield and on the Illinois River, Knapp said.

For most of the state, Knapp said the drought appears to be over with some lingering effects yet to be felt.

The meeting focused on the continuing effects of the drought, along with taking a look ahead to the long-term condition of the widespread Kaskaskia watershed, which spans 22 counties.

The third water supply plan for the region was completed last year for the southern portion of the basin, said Allie McCreary, an environmental programs technician with Heartlands Conservancy. Along with cooperative management and water use conservation, recommendations in the report address drought preparedness, McCreary said.

“We want to raise awareness of communities that could have water shortages by 2050,” McCreary said.

For now, water levels in two important reservoirs that feed into the Mississippi River using the Kaskaskia have not needed to be lowered as was being considered late last year, said Joan Stemler, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers chief of water control for its St. Louis division. The corps worked throughout the winter with other groups to maintain sufficient water levels on the Mississippi to keep it open to navigation, which is of particular importance to the agriculture industry. 

Both Lake Shelbyville, at 594.6 feet above sea level, and Lake Carlyle, at 444 feet, remain near normal winter levels, Stemler said.

In October, the corps staff was directed to keep as much water in Lake Shelbyville as possible, Stemler said. With little rain having fallen, she said that was an impossible directive.

“There was nothing we could have done to hold extra water,” Stemler said.

While Illinois seems to be coming out of the drought relatively well, areas to the west remain worrisome to the corps, Stemler said.

High temperatures causing rapid evaporation are of particular concern to Stemler.

“Last April, it got up to 90 degrees,” she said. “This concerns me more than anything, that we would fall into the same sort of pattern as last year.”

Stemler said the Missouri River, which also feeds into the Mississippi near St. Louis, has the potential for a shortened navigation season in 2013, as it remains burdened with critical drought conditions.|(217) 421-7972


©2013 the Herald & Review (Decatur, Ill.)

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