Much of suburban area experiencing severe drought: What that means to lawns, crops, water

With precipitation in the North, West and Northwest suburbs near record-low levels this spring, much of the region is experiencing drought conditions, national weather experts say.

All of Lake and McHenry counties and parts of Cook, Kane and DuPage counties are in a severe drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, a multiagency, national service.

Other parts of Cook, Kane and DuPage counties are in a moderate drought or have been abnormally dry, data indicates.

Water shortages, crop and pasture losses, and other ecological damage could occur at these stages, and water restrictions could be ordered.

If the drought worsens, major crop and pasture losses and water emergencies are possible.

"The longer we go without rain, the worse it gets," said Mike Bardou, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service.

Little precipitation

When you think of a drought, you might picture California or the American southwest. But Illinois is not immune to droughts.

The most severe have occurred in the 1930s, 1950s, 1988, 2007 and 2012, according to an Illinois Department of Natural Resources report.

The current drought is the most significant since 2012, Bardou said. Through this May, total springtime precipitation at the National Weather Service's official recording site at O'Hare International Airport was only 3.75 inches - nearly 7 inches below normal.

That made it the third driest spring since data-keeping began in 1871 and the driest since 1934, the Illinois State Climatologist's office reported.

It's>not just a matter of rain scarcity. Only 1.8 inches of snow fell at O'Hare this spring - 5 inches below normal.

Additionally, the average temperature this spring has been 52.1 degrees, 2.4 degrees above normal. March was particularly warm - the 10th warmest on record, according to the weather service.

"When precipitation did fall, it was most likely rain," Bardou said.

Levels of drought

The U.S. Drought Monitor has five intensity levels for droughts, ranging from abnormally dry to exceptional drought.

Abnormally dry conditions - like those now in some southern parts of Kane, Cook and DuPage counties - are considered short-term but will slow the growth of crops, according to the Drought Monitor. Historically in Illinois, soil moisture declines and lawns turn brown.

In a moderate drought - like the one now affecting central parts of Kane, Cook and DuPage counties - crop and pasture damage is likely. Streams, reservoirs and wells will be low and water shortages develop or are imminent. In Illinois, row crops, pastures and trees show drought-related stress and wild animals eat more crops.

In a severe drought like the one in Lake and McHenry counties and northern Kane, DuPage and Cook counties, crop and pasture losses are likely and water shortages are common. In Illinois, row crop and vegetable conditions are poor, lawns go dormant, weeds grow faster and water levels in wells, ponds, rivers, and lakes are low.

The next step is extreme drought, which brings major crop and pasture losses and widespread water shortages. Exceptional drought is the most serious category, bringing widespread crop and pasture losses and water emergencies.

Waterways affected

After record highs in 2020, Lake Michigan's water level has dropped this year and is projected to continue dropping, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers data indicates.

Lake Michigan isn't the only significant body of water in the Chicago area, of course. The Des Plaines River, the Fox River, the Chain O' Lakes and many other waterways serve important ecological and economic roles in the region.

Water levels on the Fox River in Lake and McHenry counties have dropped about a foot in the last week, said Joe Keller, executive director of the Fox Waterway Agency.

Although the river and its Chain O' Lakes are open to boaters, navigating the waterways might become more difficult if water levels continue dropping because sediment will become more prevalent, Keller said.

"The lower the water goes, the less draft a boat has to navigate that channel or lake," Keller said.

Low water levels can cause other problems on lakes and rivers, too.

If waterways are receding rather than flowing properly, they can become stagnant and develop ugly, foul-smelling algae blooms - especially as water warms.

Algae isn't just odious. It's potentially toxic to fish and people who eat that fish or swim in affected waters, as well as to pets that swim in or drink the water.

Local conservation

On land, water conservation becomes a priority during droughts.

As a preventive measure, many suburbs implement annual sprinkler and hose restrictions starting in May to reduce water usage. Any community that's connected to a Lake Michigan water system must have such restrictions.

The details vary from town to town.

In Wheeling, for example, nonessential water use is prohibited between noon and 6 p.m. from May 15 to Sept. 15, and on consecutive days. In nearby Buffalo Grove, residents with even-numbered street addresses can water lawns only on even-numbered days, while odd-numbered houses are limited to odd-numbered days.

Wheeling Village Manager Jon Sfondilis doesn't expect communities that get water from Lake Michigan will need to boost conservation efforts this summer.

"Communities could reduce sprinkling usage, but for Lake Michigan (water) recipients, this is more or less symbolic," he said.

Not everyone is as confident about local water sources, however.

The Lake County public works department oversees water service to about 30,000 customers in mostly unincorporated areas of the county. Some receive Lake Michigan water; some are on wells.

Annual water restrictions that already are in place could be expanded if drought conditions worsen, county spokesman Alex Carr said.

"Public works is closely monitoring the current situation," Carr said.

Unfortunately, the upcoming week likely won't be much wetter than it has been lately.

No rain is expected until Monday, and even then it's only a slight chance of thunderstorms, the weather service is predicting. Similar chances exist the rest of the week.

It'll be hot, too, with temperatures predicted to reach the 90s over the weekend before dropping back into the 80s and 70s later in the week.

The combination of no rainfall, high temperatures and wind actually sets the stage for another potential problem: wildfires.

Dead vegetation and other debris is dry now and susceptible to catching fire, the weather service warned, so use extreme caution if burning anything outdoors.

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