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‘Once in a career’ Northwoods lakes study lays the groundwork for future research on air and water quality

Researchers take and record water quality data during training for a lake assessment.
USDA Forest Service Photo
Researchers take and record water quality data during training for a lake assessment.

Results are just starting to come back from a major lakes study across the Northwoods.

Every five years, the EPA collects samples from more than 900 lakes in the U.S.

That comes out to about 30 lakes each between Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Michigan.

Trent Wickman says that’s a good baseline, but he wanted to more from the region that contains half the natural lakes in the U.S. He’s the U.S. Forest Service Air Resource Specialist for Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan.

He came up with the idea to test hundreds of lakes all in the northern regions of each state, what’s generally referred to as the Northwoods, as an expansion of the National Lakes Study.

The Upper Midwest Ecoregion (the Northwoods) is broken into smaller ecological (ECS) sections by color.
USDA Forest Service Image
The Upper Midwest Ecoregion (the Northwoods) is broken into smaller ecological (ECS) sections by color.

“If we do this project, what we're going to have is we're going to have a database to refer to, so that for when any individual lake that somebody's interested in, we can put it into context with all the lakes around it that are similar,” said Wichman. “Whatever part of the Northwoods that a certain lake is in we can look at that and compare it to not only the ones around in its immediate vicinity and immediate similar ecological vicinity, but we can compare it to the rest of the Northwoods. “

That was enough of a hook to get all the partners involved.

To pull off this study, Wickman needed state agencies, universities, tribes, non-profits, and private landowners.

“The impressive amount of cooperation that we got last year, was amazing. It was the only way we were able to do that all in the short amount of time that we did,” said Wickman.

Researchers collect a sample of lake water.
USDA Forest Service Photo
Researchers collect a sample of lake water.

One of those partners was the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

Katie Hein is the Lake Monitoring lead from the DNR. She says this study was important for a number of reasons including getting to lakes the DNR doesn’t usually get to sample.

“We don't know what we have unless we measure it, right? So being able to just monitor it and tell the world about these amazing resources that we have and be able to say something about them. I think that's of big importance,” said Hein.

The goal of the study is not to solve a problem necessarily but to create a database that researchers will be able to work off of in the future.

It will also give scientists a general idea of lake health and air quality in the Northwoods.

“It's an opportunity for us to just get to know them better, celebrate the diversity of lakes we have, and also put a stamp in time. This was the condition in 2022. We know there are things on the horizon or that we're already experiencing with climate change. How will that affect these water bodies? There's still ongoing development. So, you know, it'd be something for us to be able to compare back to in the future,” said Hein.

Wickman called it a once-in-a-career kind of study that will be used for research in the decades to come.

“I think so many people in this part of the country have connections to lakes, either have a cabin on a lake, or they have a friend with a cabin, or they have a campground or it seems like everybody can identify with a lake somewhere, or maybe multiple lakes. I think everybody's concerned just about their health and how they're doing. I think there's concerns from people with relation to climate change and how that may be affecting our lakes or other stressors that they see,” said Wickman. “I think this is going to help maybe answer some of those questions or help to give an idea of what's going on.”

The lab results from the samples are just starting to come back. Researchers will be compiling the data in the coming months.

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Katie Thoresen is WXPR's News Director/Vice President.