OTTUMWA, Iowa — Driving by a boat ramp one Saturday morning last month, a local man noticed some white spots on the Des Moines River. He stopped to have a look.
Turns out the spots were fish bellies. The undersides of dead sturgeon formed glistening constellations in the muddy brown water.
In all, about 58,000 dead fish were along a 42-mile stretch, according to state officials, and the cause of death appeared to be heat. Biologists measured the water at 97 degrees in multiple spots.
"I've never seen anything quite like it," Justin Pedretti, who owns a farm near the boat ramp in Bonaparte, Iowa, and first reported the fish kill.
Under the most wide-reaching drought since 1956, and torched by the hottest July on record dating from 1895, the United States has been under the kind of weather stress that climatologists say will be more common if the long-standing trend toward higher U.S. temperatures continues. Most immediately affected are the nation's water sources and the people and crops that rely on them.
The flow of the Mississippi River has slowed — at times rivaling 40-year-lows — allowing saltwater from the Gulf of Mexico to seep far up the river channel, threatening community water supplies at the river mouth. Likewise, across the nation's middle, many communities have invoked water restrictions to protect shrinking supplies. The lack of rain has sizzled the nation's corn crop, too, with agriculture officials reporting last week that the overall yield is expected to drop 16 percent from last year.
Scott Lakin, owner of a family farm in Indiana, was already dealing with the drought harming his corn crop. But his wife recently called with the discovery that the weather woes were striking much closer to home.
"I heard the washing machine making sounds — it wasn't filling," Marcy Lakin said. "Then I checked the faucets and couldn't get even a drip."