On the Missouri River, drought’s effects are diluted by tapping northern reserves

In times like these, you might have to dip into your savings.

That’s true even for the Missouri River.

The Big Muddy has run through this year’s supply of snowpack and rain and is now drawing on reserves held in lakes upriver in North Dakota and Montana.

Those reservoirs insulate the Missouri from droughts like the one hurting rivers and streams across the U.S. this year. While the Mississippi fell to 15 feet below normal near Memphis last week, the Missouri stayed level, except for a one-foot drop in some places downstream from Kansas City.

“It’s been a dry fall, winter, spring and summer,” said Jody Farhat, chief of Missouri River water management for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. “We haven’t really been impacted.”

Rainfall and snow runoff is down 13 percent across the river basin this year. But the Missouri hasn’t dropped as some other rivers have.

There have been times when drought pulled river levels down in Kansas City so much that water officials worried it might fall below the intake pumps. But the city installed low-flow pumps in 2003, and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers officials say there is plenty of water in the north to keep the river going.

The vast “bank account” of reservoir water we started tapping Friday is designed to see the region through a 12-year Dust Bowl scenario, Farhat said.

That’s 38.9 million acre feet of water — more than 12.6 trillion gallons. It’s not unusual for the Corps to use those supplies. In fact, the goal each year is to draw the reservoirs down to those levels by March 1, to make room for new runoff.

Other major river systems, and the people who live on them, don’t have the same advantage.

To the east, the drought has hurt the entire Mississippi River system. To the west, rivers across Kansas and Nebraska are reaching record lows and critical shortages.

The Mississippi depends on a host of tributary rivers — the Arkansas, the White, the Red, among others — that are now running low.

“It’s the drought,” said Chuck Sadie, chief of the corps’ Mississippi Valley division. “We just haven’t gotten that much rain in the Ohio and upper Mississippi. Most of our streams are below average.”

In Lincoln, Neb., city officials are worried the Platte River might not be able to supply the city through the drought and are discussing mandatory water restrictions, the Associated Press reports.

Lake Springfield in Illinois is dropping half an inch a day and has already lost two feet. The city of Springfield draws its water from that lake, and has joined half a dozen other towns and cities across that state in looking at water restrictions.

Rivers in Kansas are among the driest of all this year.

Those fed by reservoirs are not as low as some, said Brian Loving, a hydrologist with the U.S. Geological Survey in Lawrence.

The Kansas River, for example, was still flowing at about 70 percent of normal this week.

But other streams that depend on rainfall and ground water, like many near Wichita and in the western part of the state, “have been really hard hit,” Loving said.

USGS records going back to the 1930s show many Kansas streams reaching record lows this year.

“We have the potential for this to be the worst year since we’ve been keeping records,” Loving said. And, given a weather forecast that shows no break in the drought going into the usually dry months of August and September, “we kind of expect the river flows to get lower and lower.”

Unlike some parts of the country, Kansas City has no immediate water worries, Loving said, mainly because of the health of the Missouri and water stored in reservoirs.

“If those lakes weren’t there,” Loving said. “It would be different.”

Farhat, at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, isn’t counting on a lot more rain this year. According to current weather forecasts, she expects the reservoirs might be a few million acre feet short of the standard 56 million on March 1.

If the drought continues for years, Farhat said, Corps officials would start holding back more water and shortening the navigation season for river traffic.

“As we get deeper and deeper into drought, we see a lot of impacts,” she said.

So far, though, no such conservation measures have been required on the Missouri.