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Drought in the Black Hills Region Black Hills and Drought
A June sunrise at Belle Fourche Reservor.
Photo taken by Randee Peterson.
As we have already mentioned, the plains surrounding the Black Hills are classified as a semi-arid region with annual precipitation running about sixteen and a half inches. Naturally formed lakes are few and far between. In order to have adequate water resources to meet the various needs of Black Hills residents, a network of man- made lakes and reservoirs has been established.
Precipitation in the Black Hills region can go from one extreme to another in a short period of time. In 1931, for instance, Rapid City recorded only 9.31 inches of precipitation…over seven inches below normal. The very next year 20.76 inches of precipitation fell…over four inches above normal. But sometimes the shortfalls are not made up for so quickly, and an extended period of below normal precipitation brings drought.

The dust bowl days of the 1930s were devastating for farmers and ranchers on the plains, and the Black Hills region was no exception. Precipitation for the region was below normal from 1933 until 1941. It was during this time that Rapid City recorded its driest year on record….only 7.51 inches in 1936. Going back through the weather records, I have noticed several other periods of drought. Among these were the period from 1893-1899, a shorter period from 1959-1961 and the more recent drought of 1987-1990. During times of drought, the water levels on area reservoirs can drop significantly. I can remember seeing Lake Pactola when I arrived in the Black Hills in 1990. The water level was down nearly thirty feet from capacity.
We lived near Belle Fourche at the time, and the Belle Fourche Reservoir level was down so far that the waterline was several yards beyond the end of the boat launching ramp. There was concern on the part of some that the Keyhole Reservoir in northeast Wyoming would never recover from the devastatingly low water level there. But by the mid 1990s, all area reservoirs had recovered completely and were at or near capacity for the last half of the decade.

Because water supplies and precipitation can vary so dramatically, it is important to protect and properly manage our water resources. By conserving water, even in times of plenty, we can ensure that a greater supply is available for times of drought. Recognizing that we each have a role to play in keeping our water resources clean for fish, wildlife, agricultural uses and human consumption is also important. The science of meteorology has not yet arrived at the point where we can predict with any degree of certainty when drought will take place, though theories involving solar cycles and El Nino are making some progress in this area. For now, the best we can do is to be responsible with our use of the water we have.


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