McFeely blog: As drought continues, is it time to be concerned about N.D.'s 'new' lakes?
Summer fish kills could become a problem if hot, dry weather continues unabated
FARGO — It is hot. It is dry. And lake levels are dropping sharply, even in water-rich Minnesota.
So is it time to be concerned about North Dakota's "new" lakes, those bodies of water across the prairie pothole region that became productive fisheries when the state entered a wet cycle (checks notes) almost 30 years ago?
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Yes, 30 years. That's why I included quotation marks around the word new. Many of the 200+ North Dakota wetlands that became lakes and were stocked with fish when the rains and heavy snow began in 1993 are really no longer "new." They are an established part of the landscape, almost a given for anglers who've grown used to the abundance of water and fishing opportunities — particularly for walleye, perch and northern pike.
It feels like the days of bountiful water might be coming to an end. After a dry 2020, this year has been a full-fledged drought and there is no end on the horizon. The weather forecast for this week calls for highs above 90 degrees every day and bone dry. There is no significant rain in the foreseeable future. The "moisture deficit," a term meteorologists are using more frequently, continues to grow.
The time appears ripe for summer fish kills and perhaps some lakes that will lose enough water to not be viable fisheries any longer.
North Dakota Game and Fish fisheries management section leader Scott Gangl, though, says it's not time to panic yet. Not that fisheries biologists were going to panic anyway, since they've long reminded the fishing public that high water on the prairie was a temporary situation. The history of the prairie always as been that water comes and water goes.
"I think you have to look at it holistically," Gangl said. "As recently as 2019 many of our lakes were still at or near record high levels, so while it's been dry the last couple of years most of our fisheries are still in pretty good shape overall. We have a little wiggle room."
North Dakota went from having fewer than 200 lakes in 1990 to having about 430 today, thanks to the high water. The Game and Fish Department aggressively stocked the swollen water bodies to provide, at times, tremendous fishing. When lakes are expanding, flooding vegetation, fish grow fast and large. Jumbo perch and walleyes thrived in many of the new lakes.
Gangl said the dropping water levels bear watching, particularly if the hot and dry weather continues into August. That's historically when summer fish kills occur.
"The heat of summer and the dead of winter are two times during the year when some of our lakes can see problems," Gangl said.
In cold-weather months, fish kills occur late in winter when decaying vegetation and lack of sunlight from heavy snow cover drops dissolved oxygen levels to a point where fish can't survive. In the summer, warmer water temperatures combined with dying vegetation and algae blooms suck dissolved oxygen from the water. That can lead to fish die-offs.
Many newer North Dakota lakes are particularly vulnerable because they aren't deep to begin with — perhaps 12 to 15 feet — and so extended heat and drought is a concern.
"When you start losing water, that's when it becomes a concern," Gangl said. "How fast are we going to lose water if we enter an extended drought?"
Anglers need to keep that in mind — that we have not yet entered an extended drought like we saw in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Late summer or fall rains, combined with a winter with above-average snowfall could provide the runoff needed to add inches or feet to North Dakota's lakes.
"Mother Nature has a way of surprising us," Gangl said.
Anglers spoiled by the excellent fishing afforded them on North Dakota's prairie lakes hope she does.