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Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

How low’s the water, mama? ...Five feet low and dropping

Kathleen McQuillan
Posted 7/28/21

After weeks of smoke-filled air blowing in from uncontrolled wildfires scattered across the U.S. and Canada, and worrisome news reports of falling water levels at western reservoirs that supply …

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How low’s the water, mama? ...Five feet low and dropping

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After weeks of smoke-filled air blowing in from uncontrolled wildfires scattered across the U.S. and Canada, and worrisome news reports of falling water levels at western reservoirs that supply places like Las Vegas and Los Angeles, most of us don’t need convincing that things are getting a little scary. Even Minnesota, famous for its bountiful stores of fresh water, is feeling the pinch. Nearly 75 percent of our state is suffering with severe drought conditions. How long can these weather extremes go on? Well, some weather experts are suggesting this could become our “new normal”. If that’s true, we may want to start taking the warning signs more seriously.
I scan my surroundings as a daily habit, noticing anything out of the ordinary in my little piece of heaven. Visible signs of our dwindling water resources are becoming more evident everywhere I look. For example, I enjoy mushroom hunting and normally make frequent visits to my tried and true locations. This year, none of them have produced a single ‘shroom due to the lack of any cool, rainy weather. I’ve noticed changes among stands of aspen and balsam fir. This week, while driving south on Highway 53 from Cook toward Virginia, the rock ridge that I call “Idington Pass”, was a mosaic of variegated dull green and brown, the unmistakeable look of drought-stressed trees. I recall the stories about northern Minnesota in 1976-77, when the leafless landscape looked like November in July due to extremely dry weather, part of another nationwide drought.
Now in 2021, our creek has been dry since the first of July. The nearby beaver dam that had grown to the size of a small lake, is now a small puddle. And there are no beavers in sight. We’ve moved the pump that waters our garden from there to a spot 800 feet downstream where some water still stands. Despite our efforts to conserve, that precious moisture sometimes seems to evaporate before it can even hit the ground.
One day last week, while wrapping up an early morning phone call, the view outside my window began to darken. I thought it was just another day of thick smoke. But minutes later, I realized a storm was moving in with that heavy pall of darkness that usually bodes something big! Then the rain came. Monstrous drops in a heavy downpour! Impulsively, I ran outside, lifted my arms in the air and yes, hooped up a storm — a spontaneous gesture of elation and relief. I stood there in sheer delight, just letting myself be thoroughly drenched. In that moment I knew, way down, deep inside, just how precious water really is!
We, Minnesotans with our 10,000 lakes, some of which are the largest repositories of freshwater on the planet, together with our seemingly endless network of rivers, creeks, and wetlands, could easily take this all for granted. Sometimes we act like our water supply is infinite, beyond any harm we could inflict upon it. But challenging times like these should surely give us pause. We may think it is one big endless cycle of evaporation and precipitation, there to meet our every need. But it is far more complicated than that and certainly more fragile.
Yes, the “closed” system of our atmosphere may look like it efficiently manages our water supply, but a drought like this should show us that we don’t always get what we want. In fact, sometimes we don’t even get what we need. If you must have a poignant example to understand this, look up the region in East Africa near Mt. Kilimanjaro. Approximately 1,700,000 people live at the bottom of that iconic peak and have depended upon its snowmelt for thousands of years for their survival. These glacial melts are predicted to completely vanish by the year 2030. “Woke” westerners in the U.S. are worrying about this very same problem as snowmelt from the Rockies continues to diminish, threatening to leave millions of Americans bone dry.
I and my family recently had our own “wake-up call” last weekend when we planned a long-awaited day of fishing together on a nearby lake. It was to be our reunion of sorts after not seeing one another during the many months of the pandemic lock-down. Over morning breakfast, we chose which lake to explore, prepared our rods, dug for worms, packed the snack pack, and filled the cooler with plenty of ice-cold drinks. It was going to be hot, but we were ready for a fun-filled gorgeous day together!
The landing was quiet when we arrived. After the usual hubbub of launching the boat, we were ready to get out on the lake. Everything went fine until we tried to pull the trailer out of the water and back to the parking lot. To our dismay, we discovered we were stuck! No amount of pulling would free the back tire from the DNR’s concrete launch pad. We had failed to notice how dangerously low the lake’s water level had gotten after months of no rain. Inadvertently, we’d dropped the wheel over the end block. Our fishing trip seemed sabotaged. With no help in sight, we were left to luck and our own ingenuity.
After a lot of grunting and a few rounds of choice expletives, we were finally able to extricate ourselves from the predicament, but only after a 60-mile round trip home to retrieve necessary tools, and many hours of struggle and hard labor to straighten a bent axel.
We watched the day wane, but in a decisive moment we broke from our misery and jumped into the boat to pursue that nice stringer of blue gills we’d been dreaming about all day. With luck on our side, we found a hotspot. It wasn’t long before we had a generous meal. To top it off, we also happened to catch an unforgettable spectacle. A huge, blood-red sun as it slowly dropped into the lake!
Back at the landing, we were able to load the boat onto a damaged trailer, pack everything up in the dark, and limp ourselves safely home, happy and grateful for the experience — every single part of it!
This will surely be a story we’ll tell time and time again, with laughter for sure, and our forever take-away. With all these reservoirs, rivers, creeks and crops going dry, and no end in sight, we vowed to stop our complaining about rain, and never take water for granted again.
Title inspired by the song by Johnny Cash “Five Feet High and Rising”

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