Wisconsin’s Summer Drought Was Unexpected. That’s What Makes It So Dangerous.

Madison gets much needed rain on Wednesday after weeks of dry weather.

By Fiona Hatch

July 26, 2023

Spring and summer are usually rainy in the Badger State, but both fell drastically short this year. 

Conditions have continued to intensify over the past 5 weeks, with over 58% of the Midwest facing a moderate to extreme drought. The US Department of Agriculture issued a disaster declaration for 18 of the state’s counties that took effect on July 4. 

Southeastern Wisconsin got some much-needed rain in July, but despite the reprieve after weeks of little to no precipitation, the state is still feeling the effects of this dry season.  

Just How Bad is Wisconsin’s Drought?

Data shows that over the past two months, deficits are 6 to 8 inches from Dane County westward and 4 to 6 inches east of Dane County. These are 25 to 50% of normal values. 

For context, April-June are typically Wisconsin’s wettest months. World Weather only reported 1 day of rain in Wisconsin’s Capital city during June, and this May was the fourth driest on record since 1895. With some of the state’s rainiest months behind us, the odds do not look good for Wisconsin to reach its average annual precipitation rate. 

A Strange Weather Phenomenon

Despite this year’s stray from the norm, Wisconsin has experienced some of its wettest seasons since 2011. 

“The last two decades have been the warmest on record, and the past decade has been the wettest,” said the Wisconsin DNR

Trends observed by UW-Madison researchers show that climate change is expected to increase the state’s total precipitation and intense rainfall events, particularly in the winter as rising temperatures hit Wisconsin’s coldest months the hardest. 

The current drought conditions are in part thought to be caused by the masses of dry air moving over Wisconsin from Canada’s ongoing wildfires paired with increasingly high temperatures. 

The Impact of Droughts on Wisconsin

Wisconsin is most susceptible to agricultural droughts, or droughts in which crops do not meet their water demands due to deficient soil moisture. 

[Droughts] could lead to food insecurity resulting from crop failures or market demands driving up food costs, and respiratory distress from dust, pollen, and airborne particulates,” according to ReadyWisconsin. 

Drought conditions could also impact water quality in Wisconsin’s lakes and rivers. The heat and lack of moisture that comes during a drought can increase blue-green algae in sitting bodies of water – particularly when there is less water flowing into these basins due to lower river levels. 

Consequences will only get worse if these dry conditions persist. Prolonged droughts can have impacts on water supply and prices, electricity production through hydroelectric power, transportation via boat or across wildfire-prone areas, and public health.  

How to Prepare

Fluctuations between extreme wet and dry spells are expected to become more common as climate change worsens

There is no guarantee that this will be the last drought Wisconsin will experience. Experts recommend the following tips for drought preparedness:

Get Your Garden Ready

Make sure your land is equipped to survive a dry spell. Planting native plants, drought-tolerant grasses, and cover crops like shrubbery can all help your yard retain as much water as possible. Adding mulch to your soil can also help it hold moisture during dry and sunny days.

Restricting how often you mow and water your lawn is essential. Limiting your watering to every five to seven days in the summer and grouping together plants based on water needs can save water without killing your plants. Raising your mower blade to its highest level to keep grass tall will encourage its roots to grow deeper and prime your lawn to hold more soil moisture.

Check Your Appliances

Household appliances can use a lot of excess water without you even realizing it. Avoid wasting water in the kitchen by turning your dishwasher to the lightest cycle and only running it at max capacity and switching out your automatic sink disposal for a compost pile. When doing laundry, make sure to only run your washer when it is at maximum capacity or adjust your water level accordingly to match the size of your load. 

Doublecheck Your Water Habits

It’s easy to waste water without even realizing it. Forgoing habits like handwashing dishes or thawing frozen food in a bowl of water is an easy way to prioritize conservation during a drought. Don’t let any water down the drain that doesn’t have another purpose – for example, watering your plants with excess water.

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