Record low ice levels on Lake Michigan impacting Milwaukee’s freshwater supply

Record low ice levels on Lake Michigan impacting Milwaukee's freshwater supply

This winter has been marked by an unusual occurrence on Lake Michigan, with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reporting that the average ice cover on the lake is less than 3 percent, marking the lowest level for February in over five decades.

Sarah Marquardt, a Hydrologist at the National Weather Service, highlighted the anomaly, noting that typically, the lake’s cooler temperatures are attributed to extensive ice cover during this time of year. However, with significantly reduced ice, the water temperature is warmer, presenting a departure from the norm.

Cheryl Nenn, representing Milwaukee Riverkeeper, emphasized the repercussions of this phenomenon on the region’s freshwater reservoirs. The diminished ice cover, coupled with the absence of typical winter weather patterns like heavy snow or ice storms, contributes to increased evaporation from the lake on sunny days, potentially impacting water levels.

Furthermore, the reliance on salt as a primary de-icing method during winter storms poses additional challenges. Runoff from salt-treated roads finds its way into the lake, exacerbating pollution concerns. Once introduced into the water system, salt becomes a persistent pollutant, with no effective means of removal.

Nenn, who collaborates with Wisconsin Salt Wise, an organization dedicated to preserving freshwater quality, stressed the disproportionate impact even small amounts of salt can have on water contamination. She highlighted the alarming fact that just one teaspoon of salt can contaminate approximately five gallons of water permanently.

However, there are actionable steps individuals can take to mitigate these effects. Nenn advocates for the judicious use of salt during snowfall, recognizing that its disposal ultimately affects freshwater reserves. Heightened awareness of salt usage is crucial, as excessive salinization not only threatens water quality but also poses risks to public health.

In essence, the unprecedented decline in ice cover on Lake Michigan underscores the interconnectedness of human activities and environmental impacts. As custodians of our freshwater resources, it behooves us to adopt practices that prioritize conservation and sustainability, ensuring the preservation of water quality for generations to come.