Cass among Indiana counties still dealing with drought-like conditions

·6 min read

Apr. 2—Rain during the last two weeks has improved the drought situation, and in Cass County, less than half of the county has a drought designation according to the United States Drought Monitor.

However, north central Indiana isn't clear of the problems of dry lakes, potential dry weather for crops and a rare possibility of brush fires.

Rainfall remains lower than average for this time of year, and the area needs more precipitation just to recover from the drought that started about June, said meteorologist Lonnie Fisher of the South Bend National Weather Service office.

Even the past three months have been about 79% of the normal precipitation for this area.

The February snow raised most river and lake levels when it melted, but the ground was frozen and unable to absorb any moisture, he said.

"Winter's bought us some time, but the time's running out," he said. "[Rain is] working on the deficit that's been happening the last few months,"

The ground needs to be resaturated, and water tables need replenishing.

Since the fall, when rain falls, the ground immediately absorbs it.

The longer term forecasts show warming and dry weather, and low humidity in warmer weather contributes to droughts, said Fisher. It doesn't bode well if we don't get more rain, he said.

Most of the continental United States is looking at greater chances of receiving below-average precipitation in the immediate forecasts.

The drought began because of low rainfall last year while the northern part of Indiana was caught between two jet streams that carried moisture, Fisher said.

A wedge was created where north and south of north central Indiana got rain, but storms bypassed here.

The lessening of the drought has been very recent.

The March 25 weekly report from the United States Drought Monitor website showed the northwest of Cass County (defined by a curved line starting south of Lake Cicott at county roads 200 South and 800 West, going up to around Indiana 17 at the Fulton County Line) with a D1 designation (moderate drought), the center and northeast corner with a D0 (abnormally dry) and the southeast corner (Walton, Galveston and around Grissom Air Force Base) with no drought designation,

Now the northern half of Cass is D0, and the southern has no drought designation.

Farmers look to the future

So far, the drought hasn't affected county farmers significantly, said Cass County Farm Bureau President Kurt WIlson.

The fall harvests were record yields.

The rain that did come had good timing good timing, and the lack of big storms meant no crop damages.

The dryer ground also helped when harvesting and will help now with pre-planting chores, such as replacing field tiles.

Ground that isn't muddy would be good for planting in May, but farmers need timely rain after that.

The ground is dry after you go deeper than 10 inches, and "that dryness will suck the moisture down," said Wilson.

If there's not enough precipitation from May to July, before it gets hot in July through August, "you won't get the bang for your bucks with the rain," he said.

"Nobody loses a crop in March," said John Schwarz, a farmer and an attorney who works with agricultural issues.

As with the droughts of 1983 and 1988, there's a dry pattern out west that could affect us as it moves here.

"They always start out west," he said.

Lakes in trouble

The drought is still affecting area lakes, even after melting snow helped moving water like rivers and creeks.

Since fall, Lake Cicott levels have dropped a lot, creating marshy areas that became dry areas and turning the west end of the lake into two small ponds surrounded by mud.

All around the lake, the shores are a few feet of dark area that marks the usual water line.

Cicott and most freshwater lakes in northern Indiana were created by ice age glaciers, said David Smith, water resources planner for the Indiana Department of Natural Resources.

"Being glacial lakes, they're really dependent on ground water," Smith said.

That means they need runoff from the watershed area they're in or water from springs.

Cicott relies on both.

For water springs, precipitation falls on the ground and is soaked into aquifers that feed springs.

"We still have to have several weeks of steady rainfall to take care of that," he said.

Although last year at this time, rain was 2 inches more than average, this year it's 4 to 5 inches lower, smith noted.

"It's persisted long enough; it's a drought situation," he said.

A few miles east in France Park, the fishing lake there is spring fed and doing well, Superintendent Dana Hildebrand said.

"The swimming lake is down [two feet] but still usable," Hildebrand said. "It just gives us more beach."

In White County to the west, where the drought designations were higher than Cass, the melting snow and rains to the north lifted the Twin Lakes — Lake Shafer and Lake Freeman — out of the lowest lake levels in recent memory.

That happened about four weeks ago, said Gabrielle Haygood, Executive Director of the Shafer and Freeman Lakes Environmental Conservation Corporation [SFLECC].

Water levels in Freeman had been down 10 to 12 feet during last fall, but because the lakes are formed by dams on the Tippecanoe River, runoff benefitted them.

"We're not in a low flow event any longer," Haygood said.

But the community is more aware that it could happen any time.

Where there's smoke

Droughts bring fires, and in the midst of the drought on Nov. 9, there were five field fires in Cass and the surrounding counties, spreading departments and mutual aid thin.

There'd also been fires over the weekend before that, and firefighters attributed the spate of fires to dry weather and winds.

White County had a burn ban from Nov. 11 to Nov. 18,

According to an in.gov map listing burn bans, Fulton County lifted a burn ban as recently as March 18.

No other counties had burn bans recently.

But on March 8, fires burned two fields on the east end of White County off Indiana 24, and on March 10, Bethlehem Township had a barn fire that dryness and winds threatened to spread further.

Jerry Maxon, District 1 Assistant Fire Chief, said the increase in field fires was minimal so far this spring.

But last year, District 1 started with fires in April 7 and had 21 field fires by mid-November.

Fire District 1 of Cass County, which covers Clay, Eel and Noble Townships, was in the D1 moderate drought area for the county.

The district has had two fire since mid-March, "so it's starting earlier than last year," Maxon said.

The problem is that farm fields have dead plant material in spring, and the wind carries lit debris, causing spot fires far from the original ones, including from controlled burns.

Walton Fire Department's Assistant Chief Ryan Kunkle said, "We normally get several in the fall and several in the spring."

He doesn't feel there's been a big upswing in field fires, though.

Monticello Fire Chief Galen Logan said that his department had a few fires this spring.

But with rain and growth from warmer weather, things have gotten better for firefighters.

"Drought's over, everything's greening up," he said.

Reach James D. Wolf Jr. at james.wolf@pharostribune.com or 574-732-5117

Twitter @JamesDWolfJr