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Raccoon River discharge: 2021 vs other drought years

Posted on June 17th, 2021

Raccoon River Watershed

There’s been some news lately about the low flows on the Raccoon River and the impacts on the Des Moines Water Supply. I have a lot of this sort of data at my fingertips for this watershed, so here is a short piece.

In terms of river discharge, the two lowest (least flow) years were 1934 and 1956. Those are the only two years of the record going back to 1915 where the total runoff from the watershed was less than 1 inch. By runoff I mean the total volume of river flow during the year divided by the watershed area. In an average year, runoff is about 7 inches; the record high is 22 inches (1993).

How does 2021 compare? The graph below shows the cumulative amount of water flowing by Van Meter in 1934, 1956 and 2021 through June 16th of each year.

The Raccoon River could go bone dry for the rest of this year and still it will have transported more water in 2021 than either 1934 or 1956 for the entire calendar year.

Long and short: we have had some epic droughts here in Iowa that make this year look like nothing. One big difference though: there are a lot more people in the Des Moines area now that rely on the river for municipal water supply.

Newspaper clipping from August 8, 1934.

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7 Responses

  1. Amy Kahler says:

    Always appreciate your data, insights, and perspectives, Chris.

  2. Steve Sodeman says:

    Chris, please add 1976 and 1988 data to your presentation. These are the two more current years that more of us remember. Thanks.

  3. Robin Fortney says:

    I remember paddling the North Raccoon above Sportsmen’s Access in the mid to late 1990s, rounding a bend and finding no water! We pulled our boats over riverbed stones at least 100 yards to the next bend where the water surfaced again. Not something I’ve seen since.

  4. Allen Bonini says:

    So it appears the Iowa Supreme Court just doomed Iowa’s water to a perpetual fate of unfettered pollution and farmers now have a free pass to continue to pollute at-will. Sadly, all the hard work over the decades to reduce pollution is literally being washed down the river. Not to mention hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars. A truly sad day for Iowa and the Gulf of Mexico.

  5. John Norwood says:

    I love the historical comparisons, Chris. Again, this is another argument, for why we need to modernize and revision our ag drainage districts to prepare for more climate variability. Let’s transform them from narrowly focused drainage functions to a more broader set of water management functions that will improve our river water quality while moving our agriculture to better manage climate, weather, and the other risks it faces annually.

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