When veteran lake watcher Mike Brecher took his last depth reading on the lake for the season Oct. 8, the day the dock that he uses for his measurements came out, there wasn't much left to read.
Only 8 inches of water remained at the end of the dock near Sleepy Hollow.
"It's pretty bad and it's still getting lower. Using some exposed rock as a marker, I would guess that we may be down between 36 and 40 inches as of now. I looked at the area near Chautauqua Park today, and there are rocks sticking out of the water that weren't there a couple of days earlier."
The current drought cycle started midway through 2011. In May last year, a county engineer's office measurement at the Lakeside Dam showed the water two inches above the dam, the last time it measured above the spillway. By late summer it had fallen 24 inches. There was some recovery with snowmelt and spring rain, to 12 inches below the dam in April 2012, followed by a steady decline to the current level. At one point during the past summer, the lake fell 16 inches in about 16 weeks.
While a wet month or heavy snow cover could recharge the lake and subsoil in the farm country that surrounds it, the National Weather Service isn't predicting that, Brecher said.
"They are saying the drought pattern will last through the end of the year. They're not sticking their neck out to say whether or not it will continue next year."
As dramatic as the drop in water is, Storm Lake has seen worse.
In 1958, after a drought that had run three years, the lake had fallen 76 inches below normal. By 1962, it had slowly recovered to the level of the top of the Lakeside Dam, roughly considered average depth heading into a summer.
During what was known as the Iowa version of the "Dust Bowl," in the 1930s into the early '40s, the lowest the lake fell was 56 inches below normal. It rapidly recovered, hitting an all-time measured high of 17 inches above the dam by 1945.
In a severe but short-lived drought in 1977-78, the lake bottomed out 48 inches low, again recovering fairly rapidly to tie the all-time high at 17 inches above the dam in 1983 (There were no official readings made during the late spring or summer of the "100 Year Flood" season of 1993 when docks on the lake were swamped).
During the most recent prior drought in 2000 the lake was down 32.4 inches. The 1970s drought seems like a "carbon copy" to the current pattern, Brecher said.
If the drought does continue into next year, Brecher says he may gather a few partners and attempt to wade entirely across the lake, a feat he achieved as a young man during the late '50s drought.
"I can tell you, when you get clear out in the middle and stop and look around, standing with nothing but water spread out in every direction, it's a feeling that will stick with you. It's almost a moment of panic."
The Iowa Department of Natural Resources has given up its attempts to measure depth on the lake. "We use a point on the dam so that we can measure consistently, but all there is there now is sand," says Julie Sievers, local DNR officer.
The DNR has some concerns for the fish in the lake and other water bodies. Headed into the winter, with low water, a hard and deep freeze could leave limited space in the bottom of the lake and limited oxygen for aquatic life to survive the season. With a normal season, the fish may emerge unscathed.
Storm Lake has typically performed well in maintaining oxygen levels in the water during winter, and several years of dredging have created deeper pockets for fish to take refuge. Without the dredging project, there could be a major threat of a widespread fish kill in a year this dry. The lake also escaped the kind of serious algae bloom that many others experienced during the summer.
The low water level hasn't hampered the dredging operation this season - although it has slowed some due to the filling of the spoil site, requiring time for the material to settle and run back water before more could be added. Construction is underway on the next spoil site, which Lake Preservation Association leaders hope will be ready to begin taking silt next spring.
"The one concern we have with the drought is that we don't know if we will be able to pull the dredging boat back into the bay at the State Marina," LPA City representative Jim Patrick said this week. "I guess if we get stuck, we may have to dredge our own way in."
Concern continues to rise in the farm industry, as the soil profile grows empty. Some 10 inches of moisture is needed in the subsoil strata. According to Iowa Department of Agriculture's weekly survey, topsoil moisture improved slightly with spotty recent rain, but only 21 percent of ag land this week had adequate water, while half of all Iowa farm acres are considered "very short." Subsoil moisture is adequate on only 5 percent of the land and very short on 70 percent.
Some farmers are delaying anhydrous applications as they wait for cooler conditions and better soil moisture. With half of the state's pasture and range land rated in "very poor" condition, hay supplies are running short and there are reports of calves being weaned and sold earlier this year due to short winter hay supplies.
Iowans are also seeing some wildly fluctuating temperatures. The area saw dips as low as 17-19 degrees on Oct. 10, while a high of 77 was seen in Des Moines three days later, according to State Climatologist Harry Hillaker.