RIVERDALE Will this be the winter Lake Sakakawea never freezes? Some think it's possible. Even if that seemingly impossible situation doesn't happen, one record is certainly in jeopardy the record for the latest date the big lake becomes completely frozen.
Historically, Lake Sakakawea can be expected to be declared completely frozen anytime from the second week of December to the second week of January. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which operates the sprawling reservoir, is the agency that annually issues an official notice when the last open water freezes over.
"We've got data going back to 1961," said Chris Oiyn, Garrison Dam Power Plant. "The latest freeze since then was January 16, 1999."
Lake Sakakawea is approaching the record for the latest freeze-up in history. Garrison Dam can be seen at the left in this photograph taken Tuesday.
With above freezing temperatures in the forecast, at least for the short term, it appears that Lake Sakakawea is poised to make a serious run at the record. Water temperature at the Power Plant this past week was 34 degrees, too warm to freeze. Windy conditions add to the possibility of the lake retaining open water for several more days.
"The wind does break it up a bit," said Oiyn. "I work with Mercer County Search and Rescue. The guys there were discussing that where there was 12 inches of ice a few weeks ago there was five inches of rotten ice on top."
Late this week it was difficult to find any ice on Lake Sakakawea. Large chunks of ice had drifted up against the Snake Creek embankment, blown there by high winds. Looks can be deceiving though. The view from the Garrison Dam Overlook near Riverdale showed open water as far as the eye could see Tuesday. Government Bay was completely ice free.
"Warm weather is the bottom line. We've had abnormally warm temperatures," said Todd Lindquist, Corps project manager on Wednesday. "The bays in Lake Sakakawea State Park are still wide open."
At the Snake Creek Pumping Plant along the embankment that separate Lake Sakakawea from Lake Audubon, observers there track ice conditions daily. It looked like a big freeze was under way several weeks ago, but then conditions changed.
"It is welcome, I know that," responded Nathan Kraft, Bureau of Reclamation, when asked about the recent warm spell. "In the last couple of months it started to freeze over. The ice was weak and then it thawed."
At Lake Audubon fishermen who had set up ice houses on the lake were having second thoughts this week. Much of the lake is ice covered, but the thickness and quality of the ice has been deteriorating.
"We have about 70 ice houses on the refuge with about a fourth of those moved to the shoreline," said Jackie Jacobson, Audubon National Wildlife Refuge, Wednesday. "They were starting to move them off because the ice is not the best. Conditions are fairly poor. We're not seeing the freezing like we have in the past few years."
The National Weather Service has taken notice of unusually warm January temperatures too, issuing a statewide "ice alert" for ice that "may be thinner than you think." That is, if there is any ice at all.