Water all over the landscape

Is it wet in the Minot region? You bet it is. In fact, according to one survey conducted by the North Dakota Game and Fish Department, the number of potholes containing water in the northwest part of the state is remarkably high.

Game and Fish has been flying fall wetland surveys for the past 10 years over certain study areas, including the area from Williston to Ambrose to just north of Bowbells. The 2008 survey revealed the lowest wetland count in the last decade with 14. This fall’s survey was dramatically different.

“It was a record year for what we call Type 3 and Type 4 wetlands in the northwest part of the state,” said Mike Szymanski, NDG&F waterfowl biologist. “The average count for the last 10 years has been 83. This year we are at 298.”

The aerial survey was conducted in mid-September, a time when many potholes have either dried up or are very close to doing so. Type 3 and Type 4 wetlands, says Szymanski, are sometimes called duck hunting wetlands.

“They can be knee-deep to who-knows-how-deep. We don’t know what the actual number is in the state, just what we see on our survey routes,” explained Szymanski. “What you are seeing is typical wetland cycling.”

Certain pothole regions have experienced more than average amounts of water in the past. According to Szymanski, the northwest survey area contained about 90 Type 3 and Type 4 wetlands in the fall of 2004 and again in 2005. It dropped to 61 in 2010, jumped to 286 in 2011, dipped to 138 in 2012 and now is up to a record 298.

Although no fall survey was taken in the areas west and southwest of Minot, observations on the ground reveal a significant amount of water in many potholes. Some have grown so large as to merge with two or three others to form a very large wetland.

Roadways that previously passed easily through wetland areas are now under water, and some have been for several years. A number of construction projects to raise both paved and gravel roadways have been undertaken in the Minot region in the past few years, clear evidence of an abnormally wet period in a region still recovering from the historic flood of 2011.

Waterfowl season is now open in North Dakota. While more and deeper wetlands may seem to be a boon for duck hunters, Szymanski cautions that more water doesn’t necessarily equate to more ducks. Sometimes too much water can be as unproductive as too little.

“You want the fairly shallow wetlands to dry out every other year or so,” said Szymanski. “Individual wetlands can get less productive with invertebrate forage if they are deep and stay deep. If they start holding fish, the fish eat invertebrates the ducks normally eat.”

In one of those “miracles” of nature, fish have been showing up in small bodies of water where they weren’t known to be previously. What is known is that fish will transfer from one body of water to another during periods of high flows, particularly during the spring snowmelt.

When overland flooding occurs, fish can move just about anywhere. It is not uncommon for fathead minnows, perch and northern pike to seek flowing water. If that water leads to a deep wetland the fish may even be able to live there through a North Dakota winter.

“Where wetlands are abnormally large to you have to ask, ‘What the heck is going on?'” said Szymanski.

Sometimes wetlands fill from snowmelt or spring rains, particularly if the water table is high. At other times, the cause may be the result of draining one or two wetlands into another.

“This is not really great for wetlands. You want them to cycle naturally and go dry on their own,” said Szymanski. “But I know you’ve been getting a lot of rain in that area. Some of those things just aren’t going to go dry this year.”

Other areas of the state, says Szymanski, actually went through a very dry summer. In those areas, the amount of water and number of wetlands is at the lower end of the cycle – much different than what has occurred near Minot.

The record for yearly rainfall was surpassed at the North Central Research and Extension Center south of Minot in September. The amount of rain recorded at the Minot Airport thus far in 2013 has been less, but still high enough to challenge for one of the top 10 all-time wet years for that location.