OTTUMWA — The U.S. Drought Monitor's map of Iowa looks uncomfortably familiar.
All of Iowa now rates as abnormally dry with most of the southern two-thirds of the state already in moderate drought. A swath across the state from the Missouri River to Keokuk County is in a severe drought.
The only surprise, really, is that Wapello County isn't also in the severe drought category. Rain has been largely absent the entire month with less than an inch of total precipitation, and no significant rain has fallen in Ottumwa since Aug. 6-7.
The shift into drought has come fast. Less than 20 percent of Iowa was even considered abnormally dry six weeks ago. More than that is now in severe drought.
Experts say the only thing that has helped this summer has been the relatively cool weather. That's gone now. Ottumwa tied a record high on Wednesday and could threaten records today.
While some areas, particularly in northern Iowa, have seen rain this month, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources says people who head toward the water for Labor Day could be in for a surprise. Water levels in many Iowa lakes and rivers are “nearly identical as during last year's drought.”
The evidence is obvious in southeast Iowa. The Des Moines River at Ottumwa was at 1.3 feet Thursday morning and is expected to drop to only a foot of water as we head into next week.
Todd Robertson, who works with the IDNR water trails program, said a quick online check can save people a lot of frustration.
“If they are not going locally, they should either check the USGS site for stream flows or call the county conservation board where they’re planning to float,” Robertson said. “We don’t want people to get in to trouble because the water can’t support a canoe, kayak or tube and they have to walk, turning a six-hour trip in to a 10- to 12-hour trip.”
The weather is expected to stay hot through Sunday. That poses a real threat to anyone outdoors. But IDNR officials worry it could be a dangerous combination for those on the water.
Holiday outings frequently involve alcohol. Alcohol and water can be risky enough, but the heat likely means many people will forego their life jackets. Robertson worries the low water levels will lull people into a false sense of safety.
“It’s going to be busy because it’s going to be hot and it’s a holiday weekend,” he said. “Unfortunately when it’s hot, paddlers tend to avoid wearing lifejackets, which is a mistake. Lifejackets don’t work if you don’t wear them.”