Drought increases water demand to record high

T-R PHOTOS BY TREVOR BABCOCK — Marshalltown Water Works Operations Manager Connor Hunt said despite reaching all-time records for water demand, the plant is managing the load well while increasing testing and equipment load to maintain the water’s quality.

Marshalltown is using more water than ever before. Meanwhile, farmers are beginning to become concerned about the on-going drought.

Almost all of Iowa is experiencing drought conditions, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

Since the majority of Polk County is under a moderate drought, the Des Moines Water Works asked their customers to cut back on watering lawns as the Raccoon River’s water level drops.

Marshall County is in a moderate drought, and rainfall to date is 7 inches. At the same time last year, the area had 15.57 inches.

The Marshalltown Water Works recorded on this week an all-time production level for a single day at 10.1 million gallons. The previous record set June 2020 was 9.3 million gallons. A more typical day has around 6 million gallons being used.

Marshalltown Water Works Operations Manager Connor Hunt said Marshalltown’s water tower is what maintains water pressure while also storing some water for emergency situations.

“If it’s dry, and not too hot, you don’t necessarily use that much water, but when it’s both dry and hot for an extended period, that’s when people really start using a lot of water,” General Manager of Marshalltown Water Works Shelli Lovell said.

She said they are not having the same issues as Des Moines Water Works, because they haven’t seen a drop in their source water levels and are not past their ability to treat water. Marshalltown Water Works gets water from eight wells connected to two aquifers underground. Lovell said she does not anticipate the drought causing any shortage to their source.

Marshalltown Water Works Operations Manager Connor Hunt said they are lucky to have a good ground source of water as opposed to taking water from the surface such as a river.

At current usage levels however, all equipment needs to be working at 100 percent efficiency and there’s no room to lose or waste water.

The only situation where they would have to ask residents to conserve water is if a large water main breaks, or if there is any equipment failure which takes several hours to fix. If either happened, then Marshalltown residents would be asked to limit water used for watering lawns and cleaning cars.

Brown grass at Riverside Park at a time of the year when grass is typically dark green. Brown grass can be seen all over Marshalltown and Marshall County.

Hunt said the increased demand has not greatly changed their system and is keeping up well with the high usage. He said the plant is utilizing more water wells, both of their water treatment tracks, and is using more testing and equipment to ensure the water’s quality.

“It’s mostly business as usual, it’s just more, and we’re monitoring things closely,” he said.

Duanne Mann, who helps run a 4,000 acre farm with corn and beans in Marshall County, said he’s optimistic about the drought situation. He said his crops look good now, but will be in serious need of rain within the week.

In his nearly 30 years of farming, he’s seen conditions overall more wet than dry.

However, when planting corn this year, he had to plant the crop farther into the soil than he ever has to find moisture.

“I’d say this year’s planting, it was about as dry as I can ever remember, probably dating all the way back to 1988 when I was a senior in high school,” Mann said.

Iowa State University Extension and Outreach Field Agronomist Meaghan Anderson, whose coverage area includes Marshall County, said it’s very unusual for conditions to be as dry as they are now.

“Not only has it been very hot and very low in humidity, but we also have a pretty serious lack of soil moisture that these plants are relying on right now to try to sustain the plant,” she said.

At the end of last summer, Iowa saw abnormally dry conditions, which led to crops depleting much of the moisture already existent within the soil. In the winter months, the soil didn’t get as recharged on moisture as much as usual, leading farmers to come into 2021’s planting season with a soil moisture deficit.

Corn and soybean crops need about 20 to 25 inches of water for growth, which can come from a combination of rain and soil moisture.

“Unfortunately, we’re now getting this combination factor where we’re low on soil moisture. We didn’t get recharged for soil moisture and we’re not getting recharged right now, which we need to supply the crop plant what it needs in order to make it to the end of the season,” Anderson said. “So with every passing day, the bar gets a little bit higher for how much moisture that we need versus how much what we have right now to get to the end of the growth season.”

If drought conditions continue, Anderson expects there to be serious effects on crops. It will also take a lot of rainfall to catch up given the deficit of soil moisture she said.

“We need rain, there’s just no way around that,” she said.

Iowa State University Extension and Outreach Livestock Field Specialist Chris Clark, whose coverage area includes Marshall County, said drought conditions can also cause concern for livestock farmers.

He said excessive heat caused by drought conditions can give livestock heat stress, which can affect reproductive efficiency. If water sources for livestock dry up, farmers will have to move cattle to a different field or haul water.

Drought conditions can also reduce forage needed for grazing, as grass will not grow as well in a drought and will not provide the nutrient levels desired for cattle. Farmers low on forage have to supplement feed with hay or grain, which is more effort and expense at a time when cattle is typically low maintenance.

“It’s a double whammy, in essence when you have a drought because you’re feeding stored feed that you’d like to be saving for winter,” Clark said. “It’s daunting and stressful and expensive to have to do it in the summertime.”

If feed supply gets very low some farmers may sell some of their cattle, which is called culling. Culling can affect the mark if more farmers take that action at once.

Clark said from all the farmers he’s spoken to, everyone seems cautious and at least mildly concerned about the on-going drought.


Contact Trevor Babcock at 641-753-6611 or tbabcock@timesrepublican.com.


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