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Drought Status Update for the Midwest U.S.

October 19, 2023

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  • According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, drought is currently impacting 50% of the Midwest region, with the most intense drought in the western portions of the region in Iowa, Missouri, Wisconsin, and Minnesota (Figure 1).
  • 94% of Iowa is currently in drought, with 24% in extreme drought (D3). Despite decent improvement over the last month, drought is still impacting 68% of Wisconsin and 58% of Minnesota.
  • Overall, conditions have been dry since mid-August across a majority of the region (Figure 2), with some pockets of above-normal precipitation that have provided some drought relief in the upper Midwest, particularly over the last two weeks.
  • Drought conditions have worsened across Ohio, Indiana, and Kentucky over the last eight weeks (Figure 3). These conditions have driven record low water levels on the Ohio River and subsequently the Lower Mississippi River. Records began to be broken at Cairo, IL starting October 8 and at Memphis, TN on October 10 (Figure 4). Recent precipitation has helped raise levels to just above record stages. 
  • The record low water levels are affecting navigation along the Mississippi River and lower Ohio River. Restrictions remain in place requiring barges to reduce loads, and up to 16 dredges are operating along the entire Mississippi River to maintain the 9-foot navigation channel.
  • Beyond navigation, drought is impacting other sectors in the region. Negative drought impacts include poor pasture conditions forcing supplementary feeding for livestock and selling of herds in Missouri, corn toxin issues (aflatoxin) in central Missouri due to the drought, low surface water in streams and ponds/lakes, reduced municipal water supply and poor water quality in Iowa, Minnesota, and Missouri, and endangered mussel deaths in Wisconsin due to low water levels.
  • Drought is likely to persist across some areas already in drought over the next month as soil moisture remains low across the region. Near-term precipitation could improve drought in some locations. The two week (October 26–November 1) precipitation outlook shows greater chances that a slightly wetter pattern will continue through the end of October (Figure 5). The monthly outlook for November 2023 shows equal chances for above-, near-, or below-normal precipitation for the majority of the region (Figure 6).
  • Potential near-term impacts of persistent drought include the continuation of low water levels on major rivers and tributaries, which will likely continue to impact navigation. However, river levels typically rebound in the winter due to seasonal and climatological trends. Also, there is an increased risk for rural on-farm fires during harvest.
  • Longer-term deficits of precipitation and soil moisture should also be monitored. In some areas (Iowa; Missouri; and portions of Indiana, Minnesota, and Illinois), 2-year precipitation deficits are on the order of 16-20 inches (Figure 7). Soil moisture is low across the region, particularly at deeper levels. Soil moisture recharge over the winter months is important for the 2024 growing season.