Monthly Archives: February 2017

Low rainfall and drought conditions across Northwest Arkansas

by: Angela Danovi, Project Coordinator for Beaver LakeSmart

If you’ve been out to Beaver Lake lately, you’ve probably noticed increased shoreline exposed around the lake.  And, If you’ve been boating, you’ve also probably noticed exposed islands and sandbars emerging out of the water.

Overlook to Beaver Lake at Prairie Creek, March 23, 2016.

Overlook to Beaver Lake at Prairie Creek, February 22, 2017.

One of the most noticeable differences depicted above is the water color.  After the 10-inch rainfall and extreme flooding in late 2015, the Prairie Creek area on Beaver Lake experienced high turbidity until late spring and early summer in 2016.  In the bottom photo taken this month, the lake has retained its blue color because lower rainfall has reduced the amount of sediment flushed into waterways that lead to Beaver Lake. Other noticeable differences is greater shoreline exposure, enlargement of the land exposed around the island towards the middle of the lake, and the exposed point bar extending out into the water on the right hand side of the photo.

Beaver Lake levels have been steadily dropping since May 28, 2016, when it was at 1122.04, over 11 feet higher than current levels. Currently, lake levels have reached their lowest point in over three years, and are over 13 feet lower than this time last year, resulting in much of the exposure of shorelines, islands, and sandbars many people are currently finding in Beaver Lake.

Beaver Lake Water Level –

Low lake levels in Beaver Lake are connected with overall below average rainfall for the area. 2015 ended over 17 inches above normal in precipitation, with a huge rainfall occurring just at the end of the year.  However, throughout 2016, nearly all of the precipitation gains from the previous year were lost resulting with nearly 15 inches below normal in precipitation, and over 32 fewer inches of rainfall compared to 2015 totals. The trend has continued into 2017.

2011-2016 annual precipitation received in Fayetteville, AR. Data from the National Weather Service in Little Rock.

Precipitation received in Fayetteville, AR through February 27, 2017. Data from the US Climate Data.

The map provided by The National Weather Service, below, shows departure from average precipitation in 2016 with the west and Northwest part of Arkansas around 14 inches below normal. The National Weather Service has provided an overview precipitation trends of Northwest Arkansas from 2011-January 2017 here.


US Drought Monitor issues a weekly national, regional, and state drought report, here.  On February 21, 2017 73.61% of Arkansas was in some state of drought. Moderate drought covered 33.46% of the state, severe drought 14.80%, and extreme drought 2%. The estimated population in drought areas in Arkansas was 1,082,106 people.  Notably, one year ago, no part of Arkansas was considered in a drought.


Arkansas Drought Map on February 21, 2017 by US Drought Monitor


Nationally, this area was one of the driest places in the nation during the last weekend of February. The US drought monitor identified Northwest Arkansas, eastern Oklahoma, and a corner of Southwest Missouri as receiving dominant impacts from the drought.  They also identified the area as being in a long-term drought, typically longer than 6 months.


One good resource to use to evaluate conditions is a climograph, such as the one pictured below. Climographs provide long-term average temperature and precipitation data for a specific area.  If we continue to have warmer than normal temperatures with below average rainfall, we will see drought conditions persist corresponding with lower lake levels and other water quality and quantity concerns associated with drought.


There are limited predictions concerning the long-term drought status in this area. The National Weather Service and NOAA predict the area will see some drought relief through May.

Drought outlook through May 2017. Map by the National Weather Service at


Until additional rain comes, the lake levels will continue to be below normal.   Be careful on the lake and in the waterways.  Continue to practice good best management practices to reduce runoff and negative impacts on water quality.  Additionally, this may be a good time to think about getting or making a rain barrel to capture some of that water so you can have it when you will need it.


Managing landscapes with prescribed fire

by: Angela Danovi, Project Coordinator for Beaver LakeSmart

Over the next several weeks you may notice smoke or fire at areas you visit around Beaver Lake, within the Beaver Lake Watershed, or across the state of Arkansas. This time of year fires occurring on public lands are likely part of a prescribed fire management plan. In January, the US Army Corps of Engineers announced planned burns for Horseshoe Bend, War Eagle, Starkey, and Blue Springs recreational areas around Beaver Lake. Planned burns were also announced for the wildlife management area around Greers Ferry Lake and land surrounding Bull Shoals and Norfork lakes. Additionally, national forest managers are currently conducting prescribed burns in areas across the Ouachita and the Ozark-St. Francis National Forests.

Many people do not understand how or why fire is used to manage lands while others react to what they see as a destructive practice against plants and animals. Fire scars found in Arkansas tree rings reveal that fire historically swept through the region at least every five to eight years, prior to the 1930s.  During the 1930s, intensive fire suppression tactics were undertaken.  Now, more than 80 years of fire suppression, we have changed the ecosystem, making it more vulnerable to catastrophic natural disasters and diseases while reducing ecological diversity, niche spaces, and wildlife habitat. Adapting our forest and land management plans to allow for prescribed fire can help to re-establish a healthy ecosystem.

Prescribed fire is generally described as a strategically planned and carefully managed fire application used to accomplish specific conservation or land management objectives.   Prescribed fire objectives include lowering wildfire threats by reducing fuels such as dead trees and limbs, improving wildlife habitat, regenerating plants and trees, controlling vegetation such as non-native or invasive plants,and restoring ecosystems.

Benefits of Prescribed Burning, Fact Sheet, 2017

Each prescribed fire has a scientific plan prepared in advance that describes the objectives of the fire, fuels, planned size, map of the planned burn area, and the precise environmental conditions under which it will burn. Fire managers consider various environmental conditions before beginning a prescribed burn including air temperature, relative humidity, and winds. One tool some fire managers use is the Keetch-Byram Drought Index (KBDI), a drought scale ranging from 0 – 800 specifically designed to assess wildfire risk. The higher the number on the KBDI scale, the greater the threat of wildfires in a specific area.  A high threat of wildfires means prescribed fires should not be started.

During the wildfires in Gatlinburg, TN in November, the KBDI scale was over 600.  This means environmental conditions in Gatlinburg at the time such as low humidity, low soil moisture, low rainfall, and high winds indicated a very high risk of wildfire. The wildfire that burned through Gatlinburg ignited and expanded after two teenagers threw a lit match on the ground.  The resulting wildfire caused catastrophic damage and loss of life.  Currently, Northwest Arkansas is in the lowest range on the KBDI scale, meaning we generally have a low threat for wildfires and favorable conditions for land managers to safely complete prescribed burns. However, a final decision about whether or not to burn an area is always made on the day of the fire, based on specific conditions at the location of the prescribed fire.

Prescribed fire is not limited to public lands and is allowed on private land.  However, prescribed fires should only be done by trained individuals under the right conditions to reduce any chance of a prescribed fire turning into a wildfire.  Remember, the difference between a prescribed fire and a wildfire is control.  Trained professionals have the knowledge and experience to manage a prescribed fire.  Before deciding to use prescribed fire as a management tool, we recommend landowners get a forest management plan, available for free by contacting the Arkansas Forestry Commission.

Once you identify prescribed fire as practice for your land, you will want to seek help in preparing a prescribed fire plan, identifying individuals to assist you on the day you plan to burn, and contacting appropriate agencies.  You will find several links below that provide critical information about doing prescribed fires in Arkansas including a sample plan, agency contacts, and potential personnel who are trained in prescribed fires.  Also, our colleagues at the Beaver Watershed Alliance occasionally conduct workshops on prescribed fire. Regardless of whether you plan to use prescribed fire on your property or you simply want to learn more about the science of fire, you can help promote managing our watershed for healthy forests and healthy land.

Prescribed Fire Resources

Arkansas Prescribed Fire Network – The Arkansas Prescribed Fire Network is a cooperative project of the Arkansas Prescribed Fire Council. The purpose of the Network is to provide accurate information on the use and benefits of prescribed fire in Arkansas, provide a place where people can come to find information, post photos, learn about training and equipment locations, and find help getting their own prescribed fires accomplished safely and effectively.

This is a great resource for specific information for prescribed fire planning and contacts.

GoodFires – and sister website are part of a 13-state effort to strengthen appreciation for our precious natural lands, as well as to promote understanding of and support for the key role played by prescribed fire.

Why We Burn: Prescribed Burning as a Management Tool – Publication FSA-5009 by the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture Cooperative Extension Service

Fire Prescriptions for Maintenance and Restoration of Native Plant Communities – Publication F-2878 by Oklahoma State University Cooperative Extension Service

Fire: US Drought Portal within the National Integrated Drought Information Systems – Has several resources for tracking drought and fire risk