Science & Technology



'It's an emergency.' Midwest towns scramble as drought threatens drinking water

Kevin Hardy, on

Published in Science & Technology News

SEDAN, Kan. — James Rainbolt typically can tackle most problems at his rural water plant with some extra time or money.

But he can’t fix this.

“I just can’t make it rain,” he said.

Like others across Southeast Kansas, Rainbolt remains helpless as he watches a persistent drought dry up the local water supply. He runs a public wholesale water supply district that provides the drinking water for several cities and rural water districts. The lack of rain has been so severe that it’s now threatening the water district’s intake pipe, which brings water from a local lake to the treatment plant.

As lake levels fall, the angle at which the 8-inch pipe meets a floating pump station grows steeper and steeper, stressing the flexible joint. If the joint breaks, the consequences would be catastrophic, instantly cutting the water supply for thousands of people, businesses and schools across three counties.

“If we break it, we have no water. Period,” said Jack Warren, the mayor of Sedan, Kansas, a county seat about 100 miles southeast of Wichita and the largest customer of the water district.


This part of Kansas is suffering what the U.S. Drought Monitor characterizes as exceptional drought, its most severe category. While droughts frequently wreak havoc on agriculture here, residents are facing unprecedented challenges with drinking water supplies. This corner of the state, which lacks the vast underground aquifers that sit below much of Kansas, is overly reliant on surface water such as lakes and rivers.

That means small towns and ranches face tough and expensive choices on where to draw water from, a problem likely to increase as climate change brings more extreme weather. And it’s a quandary that stretches far beyond Kansas. Persistent drought is plaguing communities across the country’s interior: The map created by the U.S. Drought Monitor shows its deepest red pockets across Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska and Texas, among other states.

Lack of rain has hit crops hard: In Missouri, for example, 40% of the state’s corn crop was classified as poor or very poor, according to the drought monitor. Iowa, the nation’s top corn producer, is in the midst of its worst drought in a decade with about 80% of the state in some measure of drought.

Prolonged drought has even reached the banks of Lake Superior: Parts of Wisconsin have the most severe drought designation for the first time since the 1999 inception of the U.S. Drought Monitor, said Dennis Todey, director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Midwest Climate Hub.


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