Water Carries Weight

Protecting our water resources is the key to protecting our future.

Those of you who live in the South may not realize that the frozen lakes of the North support a wide variety of activity in winter: fishing, snowshoeing, snowmobiling, ice golf, even heavy vehicle traffic. Every year there’s serious conversation among ice fishermen about when the lake ice will be thick enough to support trucks.

This winter was a strange one. The first half of November was cold, and most lakes iced over early. But then it warmed up and several heavy snows followed. Snow is bad for making ice. It insulates the early ice and creates slush layers. Up-and-down temperatures followed, and the result was the worst ice year I can ever remember. Many wouldn’t even drive out on the lakes in late February, when there’s usually a couple feet of clear, solid ice — enough to support a hydroexcavator, according to the Army Corps of Engineers ice thickness and strength chart.

The thing about lake ice in a winter like this, with heavy snow and temperatures cycling up and down, is that it’s usually not uniform. No matter how thick the ice is in one area, you never know how thin it might be in another. Slush layers, air pockets and weak ice pose legitimate threats.

The Army Corps of Engineers chart says the minimum ice thickness to support the weight of my truck — about 5,000 pounds — is 8 inches. But the chart is only half of the equation in determining when it’s safe to drive out. That number assumes uniform ice thickness, which isn’t always the case, especially in early winter. It also assumes that it’s clear, sound ice — none of the slush layers or frozen crud mentioned above.

My friends and I are normally driving on the lake we fish — Boom Lake in Rhinelander, Wisconsin — by late December or early January. This year it was mid-February, and only in a limited area, and not without a bit of trepidation. Yet despite all the talk of when or if we’d be able to drive out and all the test holes we drilled to check ice depth, one thought comes to mind: The lake carries far more weight when the ice is off.

Industry, tourism, recreation, property value, tax base — the lake, and it’s larger flowage system, feed them all. The town was built at the Pelican Rapids on the Wisconsin River, where the power of the water was harnessed to feed the paper mill. The dam created Boom Lake, a boomage lake to hold the logs that were floated down river for the paper and lumber mills. The city grew around the lake. It’s integral to the community’s history.

When I was a kid, the river below the paper mill wasn’t very clean, but it’s greatly improved now. There’s a new boat landing and an expanded park near the confluence of the Wisconsin and Pelican rivers, and there are plans for a trail system. People are using the river more, as well as the public space around it.

It’s important that we value our water resources. You know that, certainly, but there’s always work to be done to inform and educate your community. Whether you’re in the arid Southwest or the water-rich Midwest, everyone needs to understand the value of the resources.

The stories of successful utilities that fill these pages month in and month out frequently highlight outreach programs, conservation, resource protection and water-quality improvement, and that’s the real story of this industry. You’re the protectors of the future, and no role is more important.

Enjoy this month’s issue.

Comments on this column or about any article in this publication may be directed to editor Luke Laggis, 800-257-7222; editor@mswmag.com.


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