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The Droughts of Buena Vista County

Storm Lake, Buena Vista county, Iowa

Beck O’Brien


As far back as 1894 and as recently as 2013, Storm Lake inhabitants have felt the effects of drought. From 1894 to 1901, Storm Lake endured a seven-year drought, during which the shore line of the lake receded about 100 yards, according to an article by former county attorney W.C. Edson titled, “The Iowa Lake That Died,” published in the Des Moines Register in 1957.

At the time, thousands of tons of sand were hauled from Storm Lake’s shores and taken to farms. Boulders that had previously been installed to help prevent erosion were blasted into pieces and hauled away. Sand and gravel continue to be valued resources in Iowa because they are essential to building roads. In 1978, Iowa produced 17,000,000+ tons of sand and gravel at a value of over $35,000,000.

In 1902, the rains returned. “The lake shore returned to its original banks,” Edson wrote. “Without rock protection the waves began cutting into the banks and undermining them badly. Our once beautiful lake was badly silted up.” In 1911, when W.C. Edson practiced as a county attorney, he filed an injunction against all property owners on the shore of the lake, “enjoining them from removing sand, gravel, or rock from within the high water mark.” Of serving the injunction on all the owners around the lake, Edson writes: “I suffered more abuse and made more enemies than I ever made in my life.”

One particular event in which a man profiting off Storm Lake’s shores was not too happy to see Edson is quoted below.

“I went with the sheriff to the lakeside and found that the then operator of Lakeside farm had a railroad siding where a large force of men with teams were loading sand on cars that were shipped to towns along the lines. On the sand bar running out to the island, the owner to the north had 12 teams and men hauling. The sand was 15 inches deep and the shovellers were taking it all down to the yellow clay. I remonstrated with the operator as this was state property. He cursed me and ordered me off his land.”

W.C. Edson’s son, Bob, later wrote about the “Ups and Downs of Storm Lake” for Buena Vista’s county history, published in 1983. Bob Edson reports that two years after his father’s article was published, “the water was again flowing over the outlet dam.” The Lake that was once presumed to be dead was again full to the brim.

The waters of Storm Lake have continued to rise and fall. A recent drought in Buena Vista county occurred in February 2013. At the time, the Storm Lake Pilot Tribune published the article, “Area Ag Outlook: Will the Drought Continue into 2013?” by Kate Padilla. In it, ag meteorologist and market analyst for DTN/The Progressive Farmer Bryce Anderson says, “We’re in the same league as the 1930s Dustbowl.”

National data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) shows that droughts are likely to become more frequent in the U.S. in the future. The USDA’s study predicts that every 30 year-interval will have more droughts than the baseline. However, one factor that will affect the differences in drought is the fact that a “new normal” will be created “as precipitation patterns and temperatures change.” In the Midwest, more than 45 percent of the region is expected to have more severe droughts in the future.

Improvement of Storm Lake’s environment in the first half of the 20th century was due in part to the Conservation Commission in town. Since the time Bob Edson’s Father issued the injunction against removing sand from the lake, the Conservation Commission twice dredged it to try to remove silt and reduce the total lake area, once to fill an area between two roads and the second time to build two islands.

Storm Lake’s history of conservation is not over. In April of 2018, the Iowa Watershed Approach posted a request on its website for proposals “to assist the North Raccoon River Watershed Management Coalition (NRRWMC) with a multi-level, FEMA-compliant, comprehensive watershed planning effort.” The North Racoon River Watershed begins in Buena Vista county.

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Sources: W.C. Edson, “The Iowa Lake that Died,” The Des Moines Register; SHSI: The Buena Vista County Historical Society, Buena Vista County History 1858-1983 (Storm Lake, Iowa: 1984); SHSI: Wayne I Anderson, Geology of Iowa: Over Two Billion Years of Change, (The Iowa State University Press, Ames, 1983); Iowa Watershed Approach, “North Raccoon River WMC Seeks Watershed Planning Services,” Web.; Kate Padilla, “Area Ag Outlook: Will the Drought Continue into 2013?” Storm Lake Pilot Tribune; United States Department of Agriculture, “Assessing Potential Climate Change Pressures across the Conterminous United States: Mapping Plant Hardiness Zones, Heat Zones, Growing Degree Days, and Cumulative Drought Severity throughout this Century” Web.