This piece is part of a collaboration that includes the Institute for Nonprofit News, Borderless, Ensia, Planet Detroit, Sahan Journal, and Wisconsin Watch, as well as the Guardian and Inside Climate News. The project was supported by the Joyce Foundation.
ONAMIA, MINN.—Todd Moilanen paddles gently through wild rice beds on Ogechie Lake, trying not to disturb a loon sleeping on its back on a nest of reeds a few feet away.
Moilanen, an enrolled member of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe and the band’s cultural resources director, delights in seeing resurgence of life on Ogechie Lake. For years, the small, shallow lake about 100 miles north of the Twin Cities was too deep for wild rice, or manoomin, as wild rice is called in the Ojibwe language.
Logging companies around the Rum River built the Buck More Dam in the 1930s, which kept water levels consistently over four feet—too high for manoomin.
Low water levels are critical for manoomin, a sacred crop for the Ojibwe people of the Great Lakes region. But climate change caused by the burning of fossil fuels is bringing more rain and flooding to Minnesota and the Upper Midwest, making harvests of wild rice less reliable.
For more than 70 years there was virtually no rice, and very little waterfowl and wildlife on Ogechie Lake. But the Mille Lacs Band worked with an engineering firm and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources to modify the dam, and in 2015, they implemented a project to restore the lower level historically experienced on the lake, part of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe Reservation and Minnesota’s Kathio State Park.
Eight years later, the effect is dramatic. The shallow lake brims with wild rice, which, as Moilanen paddles through in late June, is in its “floating-leaf” stage, where most stalks lie flat against the water’s surface and others are beginning to emerge above the waterline. Now, wildlife that feed on the wild rice are regular visitors.