I drove through a part of South Dakota west of the river last week, and it surprised me how little snow cover remains but how much water still pools in every lakebed and low spot visible from the highway.
I’ve been aware from the national weather sites I follow and from other sources that the snow cover these days is limited or nonexistent on a fair stretch of South Dakota between the Missouri River and the edge of the Black Hills. That isn’t to say the region didn’t get its share of big storms. It just shows a lot of the snows of winter are disappearing.
So, it wasn’t surprising to see brown grass and stubble on the gentle hills and valleys that make up this part of the country. It wasn’t surprising, either, to see a number of shelterbelts with only a modest amount of drifted snow remaining. That’s to be expected, given the number of warmer-than-average days recently and the blustery breezes we’ve experienced.
The amount of water standing across the landscape, though, stunned me. I’ve lived in this part of the state long enough to have seen my share of winters turning to spring with fields still covered by snow, with lakebeds still glistening with ice and water. I’m aware of that kind of winter. The thing that surprised me was that the water standing in so many deep, broad pools now seem to be as deep and broad as they were last summer and fall. Thin layers of ice coat some of the lakebeds, and last year’s weeds poke through, but the actual ground isn’t visible. I didn’t measure, but if you told me it hadn’t dropped in inch since last year, I wouldn’t argue.
I know some of the country west of the river about as well as I know the face I see in the mirror every day. During six or seven decades of living, I’ve seen lakebeds fill in wet years, go dry during droughts, fill and go dry, over and over. It’s a cycle that I grew up seeing without ever really paying much attention. The water came and went. The low spots filled and emptied.
Some people call those low places wetlands. Back on the farm we just called them lakebeds. I didn’t have to read rain gauges or check climatology reports to know if it was a wet or dry year. If I was out in the middle of a lakebed with a mower and dump rake, it was a dry year. If I got the Ford tractor stuck up to the rear axle as I tried to skirt the edge of the lakebed, it was a wet year.
In my experience, it was common to have several years in a row in which the lakebeds stayed dry. Less common were times when the low spots stayed full through more than one season. From my recent travels, I’m thinking this water could hang around for at least another whole growing season. For the sake of the people who work the land, I hope that isn’t true, but the water standing across the landscape sure looks like it moved in to stay. If a pool of water can be stubborn, the ones I’m seeing seem to be.
South Dakota, however, can change in a hurry. I recall a time when drought had the Oahe Reservoir many feet below normal. One of the river managers told me it might take six or seven years before it filled again. What it took was one wet winter and spring.
And anyone who has farmed or ranched around here knows how quickly the land can dry out, too. My dad used to say we were never more than three weeks away from a drought. More often than not, he was right.
Maybe this will be one of those times. We’re supposed to have a stretch of low-moisture, higher-than-average temperatures. I can’t imagine the blustery wind will abandon us, either. Those conditions, over time, would dry things up in a hurry.
There sure is a lot of water out there, though.