Take a yardstick and stand it on the ground. That's how much more snow we should have so far this winter.

What's left of winter 2006-07 may go down as historically brown -- possibly the least-snowy winter in a half-century or more.

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Duluth has recorded only 22.8 inches since fall, almost 36 inches behind average. There has been little snow on the ground at mid-February fewer than five times in the past 100 years, and the effect is more than aesthetic.

The John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon was canceled for the first time in its 25-year history. Snowmobiling and cross-country skiing have been confined to a few trails, mostly in the extreme Arrowhead. Water pipes have been bursting all over, pushed by a deepening frost and no insulating blanket of snow, and septic systems have frozen solid.

The northern Iron Range into Cook County, away from Lake Superior, has enough snow to draw some outdoor activity. But Minnesota's weekly update of snowmobile and ski trail conditions shows the best report in the region is only "fair,'' most are "poor'' and many are listed as "closed.''

The coming Presidents Day school break was hoped to be the savior for some businesses that cater to winter tourism. The coming week is often among the busiest for outdoor winter sports.

But not this year.

Minutes after a snowmobile groomer passed his lodge Thursday morning, Jim Janssen, owner of Voyagaire Lodge on Crane Lake, fielded a reporter's phone call. Janssen said there's about 8 inches of snow near his resort and trails are open. It's one of the few areas where clubs have been able to use trail groomers.

State trails have yet to be groomed because of the lack of snow. And traffic has been so slow that Janssen's lodge is only open Thursdays through Sundays. Most winters, he's open all week.

"I've done as much business this year as I normally do in a weekend," Janssen said.

Ejay Dawson, owner of Five Seasons Sports Center in Eveleth, says he's seen few snowmobilers heading up Highway 53. Even fewer have stopped in to shop for new sleds.

"The traffic is nil," Dawson said. "There's no traffic at all. Normally, from Wednesday through Saturday we see trailer after trailer going by. This year, I've had three parties stop by here. The only people we see going north have [ice fishing] tents in back of their vehicles."

Record territory

"We have an inverted state right now. There's more snow in Fairmont than there is in International Falls or Grand Rapids. We just don't see that very often,'' said Greg Spoden, assistant Minnesota state climatologist.

The Northland might see another inch of snow tonight as yet another snow system slides to our south. But there's no sign of any major snowstorm for more than a week.

Of course, all this can change with a few good dumps, such as a high school tournament blizzard.

What may be even more historically stunning is the small amount of snow remaining on the ground. Duluth has officially carried just 4 inches of snow cover for several weeks, and in many places, it's even less.

The lack of snow will leave a legacy of increased spring fires. Without snow to bend grasses, brush and weeds onto the moist ground, all that fuel dries out more quickly. A little April sun and wind can push small spring grass fires into raging wildfires, and standing grass can help carry fires into forests or developed areas.

The region's extreme, 10-month drought, the worst in 30 years and among the worst current droughts in the nation, will need above-normal precipitation to catch up. So far, we're far short of even normal.

Spring runoff from the little melting snow probably will not be enough to recharge swamps, recover lake levels and return streams to normal flow levels. Lake Superior probably will keep dropping, affecting shipping. And inland lakes and streams will see docks and boat ramps out of water, and possibly spawning grounds that are unreachable to fish.

Since January 2006, Duluth is almost 8 inches of rain or equivalent snow behind normal -- and already is 1.3 inches behind for 2007.

Kent Lokkesmoe, director of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources waters division, said the state's drought task force will meet next week to already start planning for trouble, including low river flows that might affect water supplies, including for the Twin Cities. It's expected the DNR will immediately restrict noncritical water pumping out of many northern rivers.

Roman Berdes, meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Duluth, said there is some sign that the dominant weather pattern that has kept us locked in dry, cold air will break next week.

By then, however, it will be too late for many people who depend on a white winter.

"We've got one clipper that will slide to our south this weekend and another that will go to our north early next week. But I don't see anything major until'' the weekend of Feb. 24-25, he said.

Adding insult to injury, temperatures may warm up so much that precipitation from that storm could fall as rain or freezing rain.

"It's not looking good for snow,'' Berdes said. "But that's been the story all winter.''

News Tribune staff writer Lee Bloomquist contributed to this report.