North Dakota Familiar with Water Extremes

Posted: May 13 2021
ND Water - May 2021
Kimberly Cook

North Dakota Familiar with Water Extremes

Abnormally dry; moderate drought; severe drought; extreme drought; exceptional drought. These are the categories used to describe drought intensity by the U.S. Drought Monitor.

In recent weeks, we have watched the red “extreme drought” category expand across the state. The map released on April 15 shows 75% of North Dakota under an extreme drought and nearly 17% categorized as severe. The southeast corner of the state, at this time, is faring much better, classified in “moderate drought” to “abnormally dry.” For this agriculturally rich  state, some of the most concerning drought impacts include stunted crop growth, dormant pastures and large wildfires. In addition, river levels are low and water supplies are impacted.

Looking back just a mere 18 months ago to fall of 2019, the region was drowning from record precipitation. In October 2019, Governor Doug Burgum declared a statewide flood emergency, as unprecedented fall flooding and rising river levels  threatened the harvest. How then did much of North Dakota end up categorized in extreme drought conditions in such a  short period of time?

It’s actually not unusual for an abnormally wet year to be followed by an abnormally dry one. “We live in this highly dynamic changing climate,” says Daryl Ritchison, director of the North Dakota Agricultural Network. “Other parts of the country don’t have that big range. In 1875, the Red River in Fargo went up to the highest point it’s ever gone in the summer. The next year, the Red River was dry. That’s the reality of where we live.”

Why exactly, though, does an abnormally dry year follow an abnormally wet year? According to Ritchison, this gets more  complex than a simple answer. “I could do a one-hour lecture on this question,” Ritchison said. “In simple terms, it’s just an adjustment of the overall pattern in the northern hemisphere. North Dakota is a dry climate, with the wet years being historically the rarer of the two signals (between wet and dry). In turn, it’s tough to get two exceptionally wet years in a row, meaning, wet is often followed by dry. The dry often is perceived as drier than it really is because of the extreme difference between the two years.”

Ritchison wants to clarify that this isn’t the case over the past 18 months. “Going from very wet back to average is often perceived as dry or a drought, when from a climate point of view, it was not,” says Ritchison. “Yet again, that would not be the case this time.”

Looking at a larger period of time, North Dakota has been in a wet cycle since 1993. Does this extreme drought mean the wet cycle is coming to an end, or is this an anomaly? Ritchison sheds some light on his perspective.

“For the past 15 years, since the 2006 dry summer when such questions first started to pop up, I always thought the wet phase of our  climate that restarted in 1993 would not end until the 2020s,” Ritchison explained. “I still lean in that  direction, yet we likely will not know until we are several years into a more average or drier phase of our climate once again. Every dry period we’ve had in the past 15 years people thought this is the beginning of the change. Although we are getting to that period when I thought we’d see the change, our current drier period doesn’t necessarily mean a drier cycle is now imminent or is occurring. It will take a few years of time to determine that change has occurred. But just like there have been dry periods in the past 25 years, there will be wet years during a dry phase once that occurs again.”

Drought is part of the natural climate of any region and can occur at any time. North Dakota has been through a considerable wet cycle in recent years, but that doesn’t mean the region is immune to drought.

The worst drought in the history of the United States occurred in the 1930s, also known as the “Dirty Thirties.” During this period, significant economic damages were incurred across the Plains, and the drought caused many farmers and their  families to abandon their farms and search for a better, or different, way of life.

As droughts are cyclical, they often alternate with floods over a series of years. That being said, a few short years later
in the 1950s, another serious drought occurred, impacting a large portion of the United States, again causing serious economic damages.

As we look more specifically at North Dakota, drought has devastated the region several times in the past. Two of the most severe regional droughts in USGS (U.S. Geological Survey) records were in the 1930s and 1980s. It became so dry, that in 1934, there were five consecutive months with zero flow in the Red River at Fargo. The 1980s was a significant drought period as well, and the extreme drought conditions ruined crops, threatened water supplies and damaged the  state’s economy. The cyclical pattern of droughts indicates that a severe drought in similar magnitude to that of a 1930s-type drought could realistically occur before 2050.

Droughts can and do occur on a smaller scale than the historic droughts previously mentioned. Regardless of the length or severity of a drought, the economy of the region is impacted and lives are affected. Economic losses, environmental impacts and societal impacts are all effects of a drought. Economic impacts include agricultural losses and recreation, tourism and unemployment losses. We know that a 10-year drought similar to the 1930s dust bowl would have a $32 billion impact on the entire state of North Dakota. A drought similar to what North Dakota experienced in the 1980s would have more than a billion-dollar impact. Both scenarios would be devastating to the state’s communities and industries and our long-term economy. As a whole, environmental impacts such as plant and animal damages, water quality and  landscape and soil erosion are usually more visible, but are difficult to quantify. Societal impacts mainly affect public health and safety. In addition, there is typically an increase in conflicts between water users.

Because droughts naturally occur, and can occur at any time, it’s important to plan for future droughts. Benefits of drought planning include reduced dollar losses caused by drought and increased community awareness of water, climate and drought.

Red River Valley Water Supply Project
Most of the people living in the Red River Valley rely on the drought-prone Red River as their primary water source. When the next significant drought does occur, the current population of the Red River Valley will not have adequate water  supplies to meet basic household water needs; therefore, the Red River Valley Water Supply Project (RRVWSP) has been developed. This is a plan to safeguard water for North Dakota communities and rural water systems in times of moderate and severe droughts.

The RRVWSP will use a buried pipeline to convey treated Missouri River water from the Missouri River near Washburn along Highway 200 to the Sheyenne River to be used by water systems in central and eastern North Dakota.

The RRVWSP is a concerted effort to ensure that public water systems in central and eastern North Dakota have adequate  water supplies, especially during periods of extended drought. The project is necessary to protect our communities and  economy from the devastating effects of drought.

The Garrison Diversion Conservancy District is a cosponsor of the RRVWSP, along with the Lake Agassiz Water Authority. The supplemental emergency water supply project is under construction with completion anticipated in 2029.

For more information on the RRVWSP, visit or call 701-652-3194.