The Herald's top story of 2021: Driest months on record contributed to 2021 drought
Starting in September 2020, each month through July 2021 was the driest on record for the northern Red River Valley, and for much of North Dakota and northern central Minnesota, according to records going back to 1885.
GRAND FORKS — Indications of a coming drought started in fall 2020, but at that point, most people weren't worried about it, said Katelyn Landeis, NDSU Extension Agent in Grand Forks County.
Despite dry soil and little precipitation, she says farmers were optimistic that snow and a few good spring rains would bring moisture back to the soil. But as winter came and went, it became apparent that dry conditions were here to stay.
“I think we entered the drought in our region in the middle of December, which is highly unusual,” she said. “You don’t usually enter drought in the middle of winter, so I think that was a kind of spark that got people’s ears perked up a little.”
The 2021 drought, which brought uncertainty to the region's agriculture economy and dominated the news throughout 2021, has been selected as the Herald's top story of 2021.
Starting in September 2020, each month through July 2021 was the driest on record for the northern Red River Valley, according to records going back to 1885.
Greg Gust, warning coordination meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Grand Forks, described the 2021 drought as a "flash drought" — it came with a fairly rapid onset and quickly progressed from abnormally dry conditions to extreme drought.
September 2019 through August 2020 was a wet period for the region, with flood disaster declarations in fall 2019 and spring 2020, but the tables turned in September 2020. The lack of precipitation in fall 2020 left soil dry, and over the winter, there was very little snowfall.
“Much of the area had less than an inch of snow water content in last winter’s snowpack, so in most cases that just melted on the existing landscape and virtually none of it ran off into the ditches, streams or rivers in the spring,” Gust said.
In agriculture, timing was everything.
“There was a lot of fear with producers that they were going to have crop failure all over, and I would say by the time we got to harvest, some of those fears were realized,” said Joe Breidenbach, director of sales at True North Equipment, a regional seller of John Deere farm equipment. “We had some areas of very poor yielding crop and we had other areas that had a good or record crop, really based on what time the rain fell on that particular field.”
There was some good news: Precipitation that came late in the growing season helped make 2021 a good year for some crops, like sugar beets.
“Beets can be very dynamic and can respond well when conditions change,” said Joe Hastings, general agronomist for American Crystal Sugar. “Fortunately, they did.”
Hastings said beets have long taproots that stretch deep into the ground in search of moisture. With the dryness came low rates of root diseases and leaf diseases. There also were fewer weeds. The combination helped bring healthy root systems for beets.
“I believe around Aug. 19 we started getting those rains, and since the roots were healthy and a very nice shape, they responded nicely and grew,” Hastings said.
With a yield at 20.7 tons per acre and a sugar content 17.99%, Hastings said 2021 ended up being the company’s third-highest year for recoverable sugar per acre since 1980.
Already, with fall precipitation and the snowpack so far this winter, there are indications that moisture levels for much of the northern Red River Valley will be normal. Most of the Red River basin south of Grand Forks has normal levels of soil moisture, and areas like the Devils Lake basin and Lake of the Woods are back to low-level drought conditions.
“We are in a better position going into the spring now to be able to get in and hopefully get a good start to the crop year,” Gust said. “At this point, it's looking fairly optimistic.”
Hastings also says fall moisture bodes well for sugar beets in 2022, but the soil could benefit from more timely rains in the spring. With sugar beet taproots stretching six to eight feet into the ground, the beets benefit more from deep soil moisture than surface level soil moisture.
Even with predictions of a normal year, 2022 might not be as wet as the region is used to. Gust predicts normal levels of moisture in the region, but points out that from around 1993 to now, the Midwest has been in a protracted wet period.
“We’ve gotten into the habit now of having excellent moisture so that we’ve had an abundance of moisture or above-normal soil moisture for most of the spring seasons over the last couple of decades,” said Gust. “So, when you get a normal year, people start to think that it’s a bit dry, but it’s still pretty good.”
Following is a list of some of some of the top Herald news stories of 2021.
- A number of North Dakotans had connections to the Jan. 6 Capitol riot in D.C., including a Grafton lawmaker who attended a rally but not the riot, and a Cavalier man who was arrested in D.C.
- An effort between resort owners, a local snowmobile club and others led to the creation of the Northwest Angle Guest Ice Road, a 45-mile route across lake and land that provided much-needed vehicle access to the Northwest Angle during the winter of 2021 when the Canadian border was still closed to nonessential travel. A similar venture is in the works for the winter of 2022, a local Angle business owner announced in late December.
- Lutheran Social Services announced it is closing , meaning the loss of jobs for about 50 in the Grand Forks region.
- A multi-car crash in downtown Grand Forks resulted in three deaths.
- After about a month of full-time distance learning for students, East Grand Forks returned to regular learning models .
- The annual Giving Hearts Day raised $22 million for North Dakota and Minnesota nonprofits , including many in Greater Grand Forks.
- Failing grades were on rise in Grand Forks public schools , likely due to COVID disruption.
- UND announced plans to name its High Performance Center after Fritz Pollard , a former Olympian and one of UND’s first Black graduates.
- Grand Forks school administrators began the shift to return high school students to full-time in-person learning .
- BIA officers fatally shot three people on North Dakota reservations, including David Suarez on the Spirit Lake reservation. His mother is still seeking justice.
- Minnesota-Duluth earned a five-overtime win over UND in the NCAA West Regional college hockey final. It was the longest game in NCAA Tournament history . Duluth won 3-2 to advance to the Frozen Four.
- Grand Forks International was the busiest airport in the nation over a few days in March.
- A number of residents of tiny Gully, Minnesota, helped fight a grassfire that threatened the community. Later in the month, a large prairie fire broke out near Mentor, Minnesota .
- Grand Forks International Airport acquired some of the land necessary to complete a runway expansion.
- The local Ambassador Motel was deemed unsafe and renters there were forced to find new places to live.
- A week after the Grand Forks School Board voted to eliminate seven teaching positions within the district , the board effectively reversed its decision .
- A meeting organized to discuss an upcoming school referendum drew criticism from some who felt it wasn’t right for a paid consultant to plan a “vote yes” campaign. School officials say they didn’t know the meeting was being held.
- UND and the city were recognized jointly with an award from the International Town and Gown Association for partnerships and collaboration between the campus and community.
- Logan Schonert of Grand Forks was named the National VFW’s Firefighter of the Year.
- A new commander took over at Grand Forks Air Force Base.
- In a June election, Grand Forks voters considered a two-part ballot regarding school buildings and a potential mill increase. One measure failed (the bond issue to consolidate two elementary schools and Valley Middle School and build a conjoined elementary and middle school on the Valley site) and one measure nearly passed (adding 10 mills for the school district’s building fund). The issue came before voters again in September in an amended version.
- The new Memorial Union at UND was nearing completion, while other construction projects on campus continued .
- At a State Board of Higher Education meeting, then-member Kathleen Neset urged Mayville State President Brian Van Horn and other university presidents in the North Dakota system to “ always maintain the highest level of professionalism .” Soon after the meeting, members of the board criticized the Herald’s reporting of the comments . Later, the Herald investigated a series of allegations at Mayville State.
- Salamah Pendleton was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison for the murders of Cody Holte and Lola Moore. Noteworthy moments from the trial: body camera footage shown in court , Pendleton testifies .
- Grand Forks bypassed its drought conservation plan because it felt water levels in Red Lake and the Red Lake River were high enough to justify it .
- The City Council modified the city’s chicken ordinance .
- A July 15 storm brought as much as 9 inches of rain to Grand Forks County.
- Local leaders breathed a sigh of relief after a proposed federal rule change was nixed , meaning Grand Forks will remain a “metro” area.
- Multiple crashes occurred over two days on the same segment of Highway 2 west of Grand Forks.
- A neighborhood was shaken after a man was arrested on charges of kidnapping in Grand Forks.
- Opioid overdoses more than tripled in Grand Forks during the pandemic as new counterfeit pills grew in popularity.
- Eric Reinbold , accused of murdering his wife , was captured after several weeks on the run.
- UND became the first university to partner with the U.S. Space Force, through the agency’s University Partnership Program.
- GFAFB got a new mission, bringing a total of five “spokes” to its wheel of missions.
- An Air Force drone crashed into a field north of Grand Forks Air Force Base
- The Herald reported that Grand Forks is headed for a ‘major’ political shift in the wake of the release of U.S. Census numbers.
- Meetings of the East Grand Forks and Grand Forks school boards included sharp comments from parents who were unhappy with mask mandates in schools.
- East Grand Forks and Grand Forks both saw population increases , according to the U.S. Census.
- The worst drought in decades affected all aspects of the outdoors in 2021, but fishing access and waterfowl prospects were especially hard hit.
- UND fired Cara Halgren after a judge determined she discriminated against former police chief Eric Plummer, based on his political views.
- In September, a 10-mill increase was passed by Grand Forks voters to help fund infrastructure improvements in the local school district.
- Grand Forks had a big week of events , one of its biggest since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. It included the four-day Greenway Takeover .
- A concert by Luke Combs set an all-time attendance record at the Alerus Center.
- Veterans Memorial Park was officially dedicated in Grand Forks, marking the culmination of years of work to make the facility a reality.
- East Grand Forks leaders released a “wish list” of upgrades for local ice arenas and ballfields.
- A woman died
after she was shot inside a Grand Forks home
- John Hauser, a UND student was killed in a plane crash in October during a training flight. It was later revealed he had been suffering from mental health issues. UND convened a mental health summit, and his parents created a memorial fund to help aviation students.
- Crookston 10-year old Kaylee Acevedo was struck and dragged by a semi at a dangerous downtown intersection . MnDOT has since closed a turn lane in an effort to make the sidewalk safer for pedestrians.
- Nursing homes and assisted living facilities across the state are experiencing a workforce shortage of nearly all positions available within their facilities. The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the issues, and the Grand Forks region has been no exception.
- Lumber prices , supply shortages and more turned the local lumber industry on its head.
- Grand Forks International Airport set a record for the daily number of passengers , most of whom were headed to Tennessee to watch the UND hockey team.
- An area woman died after being struck by a car in Nashville.
- A big fundraising push for the career technical center was achieved late in the year. All told, organizers raised more than $10 million in just 70 days, qualifying for up to $10 million in matching dollars from the state.
- In November came an announcement that Fufeng Group has chosen Grand Forks for what appears will be a massive corn-million facility. Local business leaders call it a “historic” development.
- Deer disease was big news on the local outdoors scene in 2021 with the first case of chronic wasting disease in the Red River Valley and the first cases of epizootic hemorrhagic disease (EHD) in eastern North Dakota killing dozens of deer along the Red River in the northern Valley.
- The U.S.-Canada border opened to travelers from Canada for the first time in 20 months on Nov. 8.
- SeaQuest sought a public subsidy to open an aquarium attraction before backing away from Grand Forks .
- Grand Forks-based Altru Health System purchased land for a hospital in Devils Lake.
- Boardwalk Bar and Grill was handed a $25,000 fine and a temporary suspension of its license for violating Minnesota’s statewide mandates during the pandemic.
- During the recently completed special session of the state Legislature, Grand Forks leaders were pleased after a number of big funding victories for the community .
- Employees at Mayville State University were told they must repay the university after they were mistakenly overpaid.
- West Elementary School closed permanently; the property was sold and the building was razed by its new owner-developer to make way for 11 single-family homes .
- Altru Health System announced it is resuming its Grand Forks hospital construction project , after a months-long hiatus. Earlier in the year, it announced it was expanding its plan to create a seven-story facility.
- Grand Forks County recorded its 100th death associated with COVID-19.
- East Grand Forks was the recipient of a $1.26 million grant to be used to refurbish LaFave Park.