Serious drought: how it affects Lake Maxinkuckee and its watershed

This article has been sit­ting on my desk in draft stage for about a month, but with the recent inquires coming into my office con­cerning Lake Maxinkuck­ee, it seemed important to complete the research and get it out to the pub­lic. The current drought has been compared to those that occurred in 1988 (1988 Palmer Index Map) and the Great Dustbowl of the ear­ly nineteen thirties (1934 Palmer Index Map).

State meteorologists actually feel this drought is as bad as the drought of the thirties. The June 2012 Palmer In­dex map also shown here demonstrates the most re­cent data released by the National Climatic Data Center, which is part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administra­tion News of incoming July data seem to show it is worsening. Let’s take a look at what is involved in this area.

To begin, you should un­derstand that in our region, the general area of Lake Maxinkuckee, there lies beneath us one of the best producing aquifer systems in Indiana. I have provided a Generalized Ground-Wa­ter map to show you what I am talking about. Starting about 70 to 80 feet down in the earth, is a “body of wa­ter” that can produce 600 gallons of water per min­ute when pumped through municipal wells. Most of north central Indiana has ground-water resources that are classified as being good to excellent, unlike those in much of the rest of the state, even just to the west in Starke County. Major areas of ground-wa­ter availability extend from this region, to further north, in the productive Silurian- Devonian bedrock aquifer system.

This system con­tains depos­its of glacial material up to 500 feet in thickness with highly pro­ductive inter-till sand and gravel aqui­fers. Lake Maxinkuckee, a glacial “ket­tle” lake with 88 feet depths in one spot, is fed by 21 underground springs stem­ming from this aquifer. This is a very good thing; it is what sustains our lake level at a higher lev­el than other lakes around the state. I ask that you remember this fact while reading the rest of this article.

The current drought ap­pears to be part of the quirky weather patterns we have been experienc­ing lately. For example the lack of water in the wet­lands over the past couple years, the lack of snow last winter, the lack of rain this spring, the early spring heat wave, along with fairly low humidity numbers. The Marshall County Soil Re­port notes that Plymouth usually has about 37 inches of total participation each year. Most of which, 22 inches, or 60 percent, falls in April through Septem­ber. Thunderstorms oc­cur on about 43 days each year, most in summer. Re­ports just released by the United States Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Ser­vice, show that Plymouth received only 6.75 inches of rain between April 1st and July 22nd of this year. That puts them in a “rain deficit”of 8.12 inches as of this date. Rochester has had only 7.20 inches so far this year which gives them a rain deficit of 7.11 inches for the same time period. Ac­cording to many sources, it appears that this drought may last a few more months at the very least.

Almost all corn fields have been impacted by the heat, those who irrigate have been able to reduce the impact of the dry weather (corn yields state wide may fall below 70 bushels per acre this year). The water to irrigate can co`me from ditches that run through farms, which are also used to water their livestock, or from a farmer’s wells. The 183,000 irrigated acres in northwest Indiana make up almost 60% of the State’s irrigation capacity. The current average investment exceeds $1000 per acre. Some farm­ers are, or have been, contemplating chopping drought stressed corn for silage to supplement a shortened live­stock feed supply. This is part of our food system folks – reports are already in that food prices will rise by about 4% next year. Droughts, as you can see, can have long term ramifications.

These farmers have another problem, their livestock pastures. Many are experiencing grass shortages due to the drought conditions and now need to keep their ani­mals from eating toxic weeds. These poisonous species may exist regularly in pastures, but are typically avoided by livestock due to their lack of palatability. With these drought conditions resulting in a shortage of favorable grass and forage, livestock may be forced to graze these toxic plants. Please refer to the ANOMOLOUS Percent of Pasture &Range Land in “Poor” and “Very Poor” Con­dition map to understand the farmers’ plight. The “plus” numbers represent the number in distress ABOVE the norm of last records or compared to the norm of past re­cords. For the record, the USDA shows that thirty years of increasing irrigation to farm fields have not impacted municipal water well depths, which is where the strength of our aquifers is measured.

Those who live in town or on the local lakes, also face some stresses produced by the drought, though not as seri­ous as those of the farmers. Many of our lawns are dy­ing. Trees planted less than five years ago are under severe stress, gardens drying up, flowers withering. Even the recreational things we do during summer are being great­ly affected. The Culver Academies had to pull their sail­ing ship, the Ledbetter, out of the lake last week. Some people have boats that are now stranded on their boat lifts, propellers have been broken by rocks never seen at “nor­mal” lake levels.

Fish in the lake are hiding deeper and deeper in the cool­ness of the lake as temperatures soar and oxygen levels in the water are depleted by the heat and lack of flowing water. Deer, wild turkeys, and other animals are facing food and water shortages in the areas where they normally travel and live.

Neighboring Lost Lake and others, even Lake Max­inkuckee, may have some concerns with blue-green algae blooms which produce microcystintoxin. These blooms occur when no water is flowing through a lake for a sus­tained time period. These toxic algae blooms occur when water flow, lake depth, wind and heat are combined issues. Blooms can look like scum on the surface of the water in bays and inlets and can be either blue-green or even brown. Members of the Marshall County Lakes & Waters Council will participate in a Marshall County Health De­partment initiative to pull water samples from every lake in the county, and have them sent to a lab for toxicity tests. We here at Lake Maxinkuckee, as well as the people at Lost Lake,are of course joining this effort, even though LMEC tests regularly for algae for an Indiana Univer­sity program. The Indiana Department of Environmen­tal Management is so short staffed that they can only test state run lakes. You can visit to get facts about the signs of poisoning as well as a list of lakes with current algae warnings.

Someone at a recent town council meeting requested that the town consider drilling a well to pump directly into Lake Maxinkuckee to replenish the lake level. We at the LMEC believe droughts to be natural events and would not support any actions being taken now that might cause an unknown impact later. We also know that such an ac­tion has failed to help Bass Lake retain its water levels during this drought, even though Bass Lake is much shal­lower than Lake Maxinkuckee. Remember, our lake is fed by underground streams.

It would be good if anyone pulling water out of the lake to water their lawn would try to reduce their watering, possibly by focusing their watering efforts only on their plants, flowers, and young trees. One tree will take up ¾ of an inch of ground water on a ninety degree day when a 30 mile per hour wind is blowing. If you must water, one inch of water a week should keep things from drying up completely. Culver’s town manager recently requested that everyone using town water adhere to these same con­servation measures. LMEC feels anyone using their own personal wells should do the same.
Reports across Indiana show that some reservoirs around Indianapolis are down as much as twelve feet and it was reported by their water department that 40% of wa­ter usage is from watering lawns.

This can be a serious is­sue when you are also taking your drinking water from the same reservoir system. Other lakes in our area are down four to eight feet because their aquifers are less productive than the one below us. Lake Maxinkuckee was down only eighteen inches about two weeks ago and I expect it might have passed two feet by now. Remember, the amount of shore now bare, does not equate to the water level.

The small rain showers we have had the past week or so may have “greened up” your lawn a little, but one inch of rain does little to replenish the lake level. The recharge rate for the aquifer is about eight inches out of the normal 35 – 37 inches of rain we usually receive from April through September. You could relate one inch of rain to the lake surface by using the following equation. If it takes 50 gallons of water to put down one inch of rain on 100 square feet of area, and Lake Maxinkuckee has 80,760,240 square feet of surface area or 807,602 one hundred square foot ‘sections’. It would take 40,380,120 gallons of water to put one inch of water on the lake’s sur­face. Pumping twelve to twenty inches of water into the lake from our aquifer would be an enormous undertaking.

The rate evaporation plays on the lake is harder to measure because wind, temperature, and humidity cause evaporation and LMEC has no way of measuring those things at this point. You can read about evaporation at the NOAA web site however, it explains how they collect this type of data.

Some say that droughts are often nature’s way of lev­eling the playing field. Indiana Department of Natural Resources biologists have been fielding reports that low, stagnant water and algae blooms are causing fish kills, primarily with cool-water species such as the predatory Asian carp – which isn’t a bad thing, though other fish species are being affected. Deer and wild turkey popula­tions may drop as a result of this sustained drought, but they will certainly survive. The drought impacts Ash trees by allowing insects such as the emerald ash borer easier access. Culver only has about thirteen ash trees in town, but we know that the emerald ash borer is already in Rochester so we may lose these few trees.

As I reported earlier in this article, we have already been told that food prices will likely be higher by as much as 4% next year, and that without a seriously wet winter, the lake will probably not be back to its normal level for a year or two at least. Unfortunately no one knows what the final outcome of the drought of 2012 will be because it is still going on. One thing we do know is that if we con­serve water together, we should all come out of this okay.

Sources for this article were provided by NOAA, USGS, USDA, IDEM, IDNR, Fulton County Extension Office, the Town of Culver, Marshall County Health De­partment, LMEC, as well as many individuals. I want to thank them all for their valuable assistance.
1988 Palmer Drought Severity Map - NOAA
1934 Palmer Drought Severity Map - NOAA
June 2012 Palmer Drought Severity Map - NOAA
Generalized Ground-Water Availability Map - IDNR
ANOMOLOUS Percent of Pasture & Range Land in “Poor” and “Very Poor” Condition - USDA