By Douglass Keiser
Student at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities in the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences

Throughout recorded history, all regions have recognized cycles of drought. Every decade or two, a given region experiences dry conditions with often devastating consequences for agriculture. But like all cycles, there has always been a natural balance between wet and dry years with most years falling somewhere in the middle. While the boom-and-bust cycle isn’t a guaranteed fact of nature, it’s possible for a drought to be so severe that we can’t recover from it.

A major drought overtook Minnesota during 2021, as persistent moisture deficits combined with above-normal temperatures across the state. It was so severe that in some areas of the state it seemed like a biblical “end of times” – crops withered, grass turned brown, lake levels dropped dramatically, small streams dried up, sinkholes appeared, and even the mighty Minnehaha Falls ran silent.

In some parts of the state, the drought was as serious as anything experienced in more than 40 years. In early September, more than 65 percent of the state was categorized at the highest severe level for drought conditions. 

So what made 2021 so significant?

This drought presented itself like others: hotter summer temperatures and a lack of natural precipitation. But what was different was that the groundwater and aquifers couldn’t support the drain from agriculture irrigation and were unable to naturally replenish or maintain water levels for our streams, lakes, and rivers.

This isn’t a new phenomenon. Every year, farmers pump billions of gallons of groundwater to quench thousands of acres of potatoes, corn, soybeans, alfalfa, and other crops. Irrigation has transformed areas of the state with poor soil into lush and thriving farm country. But farmers pumped the water out faster than it could be naturally replenished.

Over the years, farmers have systematically depleted the groundwater supply through unsustainable agriculture irrigation practices. The irrigation is literally sucking the life from creeks, streams, and lakes. And in doing so, we’re altering precious ecosystems and creating situations where native plants and wildlife can no longer be supported.

Even though we live in a state famous for its 10,000 lakes, our water supply is not infinite. It’s vulnerable, and if we continue to use it without regard to the consequences, we’ll be at a point where the groundwater can no longer sustain us during regular years – much less during times of drought. Beyond simply having water restrictions, Minnesotans would have to get used to dry creek beds, neighborhood fishing ponds becoming mud holes, and backyard birds disappearing. Over time, what we are accustomed to would disappear; our entire ecosystem would change and adapt to arid conditions.

We need water to sustain us and agriculture in a sustainable way.  We must recognize the long-term consequences of our water consumption. We need to invest in agriculture technology, grow smarter, and water smarter. We need to improve the performance of our fields without exhausting the groundwater supply faster than it can be replenished.

It’s a complex problem without a simple solution. It requires changing our behavior and our consumption patterns – not only for water but the food we consume.

We don’t have to accept a dry future. While we can’t change the weather, we can change our habits, change our consumption, and change our trajectory. We just have to make the choice.

To get involved, reach out to the MN350 Food Systems team.

Douglass Keiser is a student at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities in the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences.