Low water in Lake Superior threatens wild rice 4-24-07

ODANAH, Wis. (AP) - The footprints of waterfowl checker the muddy flats of the Kakagon Sloughs, where beaver lodges sit exposed to their foundations in the bright sun.

Water in Lake Superior has reached a near-record low of 182.86 meters, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. A drop of about 6 inches will bring it within reach of the historic low of 182.69 meters set in 1926.

Only a year ago, the water in the area known as Wisconsin's Everglades was 1 to 2 feet higher. Now, the Kakagon Sloughs, the largest coastal wetland in the Great Lakes, are turning into dry land.

The change threatens one of the largest wild rice beds in the world.

A lack of water in the growing season could destroy large portions of the bed, said Matt O'Claire, a game warden with Bad River's Natural Resources Department and a member of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa.

The tribe has harvested wild rice, a staple of its diet, from the bed for centuries. Now, some members may be forced to go off their reservation to find it, he said.

“I've talked to a lot of elders, and none of them can remember when it looked like this,” O'Claire said. “Some of them, they won't even come out here because they don't want to see it. It's just too painful.”

Tom Doolittle, a fish and wildlife biologist, calls the changes “catastrophic.”

“A lot of the sample sites for wild rice are bone dry,” he said.

The drop in water level is having other effects as well.

Crowded into a more narrow channel, young walleye, perch and pike are falling prey to bigger fish. Recreational boating and commercial shipping are threatened.

On a boat ride through the sloughs earlier this week, O'Claire said every part of the food chain has been affected.

“All of these ducks you see walking around, they're used to swimming around,” he said. “It makes them uncomfortable too, because they don't like to be swimming around in deeper water because they can't see what's under them.”

He has been frustrated by tribal regulations that help preserve aquatic and wildlife but don't address the root of the problem: the lack of water in the lake. O'Claire said all he can do is warn others to keep boat wakes to a minimum, so as not to disturb the exposed roots of the wild rice bushes.

Some wild rice seeds can lay dormant for up to 10 years before sprouting again, so there's hope the beds can be preserved.

But Doolittle said conditions are ripe for the spread of invasive species, such as purple loosestrife.

“With the exotics, we're watching out for colonization, because those exposed substrates are what invasives love,” he said.

Cristopher Sand, a fisheries biologist for the DNR who studies inland waters in Bayfield and Douglas counties, said the drought has affected them as well. Areas such as the Bibon swamp are dryer and there's increased vegetation.

Cities such as Ashland are dredging boat launches and marinas to counterbalance the lower water level. But that kind of action is unlikely to save wildlife or the rice bed.

Sand said it would take years of steady precipitation to reverse the affect of warmer summers, less rain and a longer growing season.

“This has been happening for at least a decade,” Sand said, “and it's going to take at least a decade to return water levels to their ordinary high water levels.”