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The new normal: Expect frequency, intensity of May storms to continue, experts say

Historic rainfall in May causes delays for northern Illinois farmers

The Half Way house between Utica and Ottawa is practically an island on May 20. Flood waters cover portions of Dee Bennett Road in front of the historic home.
The Half Way house between Utica and Ottawa is practically an island on May 20. Flood waters cover portions of Dee Bennett Road in front of the historic home.

The record-setting rainfall in May has made farmers in northern Illinois nervous they’ll experience setbacks in the growing season for a second year in a row.

Victoria Wax, manager of the Kendall-Grundy Farm Bureau, said the heavy rain in May has caused fields to “drown out,” which will mean that farmers will have to replant corn and soybean crops.

“Right now, the more rain we get, the more setbacks we have,” Wax said.

The wet weather this spring may become the norm in Illinois and the Midwest. For three years in a row, May has set a new precipitation record, according to the National Weather Service.

Precipitation in Illinois has increased by 11 percent since 1895 and the state has become more likely to experience “exceptionally wet years in recent decades,” according to a 2019 study on heavy precipitation in the state from the Illinois State Water Survey.

Momcilo Markus, one of the authors of the study, said in an interview with the Metropolitan Planning Council that the intensity and frequency of rainfall in the Chicago area have been increasing since the beginning of the 20th century.

“Moreover, climate models suggest that this trend will persist and that we will have even more intense and frequent storms in the future,” Markus said in the interview.

The U.S. Fourth National Climate Assessment report also noted heavy precipitation is becoming more intense and frequent across the U.S., including the Midwest, and "these trends are projected to continue in the future."

Temperatures in Illinois have warmed by about 1.2 degrees Fahrenheit over the past century and the warmer air can lead to storms having more water available for precipitation, according to the Illinois State Water Survey study.

Last spring, the historic rainfall and flooding caused widespread planting delays and significantly shortened the growing season across the Midwest, according to a report from the Midwestern Regional Climate Center. About 20 million acres went unplanted because of the wet conditions, the report said.

David Myer, who farms near Marseilles in eastern La Salle County, not only got to see the Illinois River run amok with the recent rainfall, but has to deal with flooded crops, which also are seeing little to no sunshine or nitrogen for growth.

“We have seen very limited sunshine this past week so drying conditions are very slow and the newly planted seeds are fighting seedling diseases as well, which could lead to poor germination and less than desired plant populations,” he said.

Grain barges on the Illinois River are not going anywhere in the high water, which causes a time crunch for grain companies. Deliveries need to be completed by June 15 because the river’s locks and dams will begin repairs on July 1; which are scheduled to be completed by October if no additional flooding occurs.

Wax said farmers don’t want to be in the same position last year when they were planting well into June and July. She said the farmers’ success in growing crops this season will depend on what happens in the summer.

“We could have incredible conditions in the summer to get the most field potential out of that seed that has been planted,” she said.

Wax said a crop progress report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture showed farmers were further ahead than last year with planting crops.

The report said Illinois was at 83 percent corn planted during the week ending on May 17, compared to the previous year when it was at 20 percent. Illinois was at 60 percent soybeans planted, whereas last year it was 7 percent.

Mark Schneidewind, Will County Farm Bureau manager, said farmers remain optimistic and there’s still time for them to get crops planted.

“It all depends on how fast we can dry out,” Schneidewind said.

He said it’s “very unusual” to have a spring season that has been so wet and some farms on May 17 received more than four inches of rain. He said the amount of rain farmers received on that day was “way, way too much.”

Besides agriculture, the record-setting wet weather in May led to the temporary closure of boating at Crystal Lake in McHenry County because of the high water levels. The Fox River's Upper River (Zone A), Lower River (Zone B) and Chain O' Lakes were closed Friday afternoon, according to the Fox Waterway Agency's website.

Last year’s heavy rainfall had also led to closure of recreational areas in the Midwest, impacting boating and fishing, and also caused barge traffic to come to a halt as many locks were closed, according to the the Midwestern Regional Climate Center.

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