Minnesota and Wisconsin Are Beefing About Who Has More Lakes

Minnesota, obviously, is the winner, but it turns out there is no actual, technical definition of what constitutes a lake

northern mn sunset
Sunset in the "Land of 10,000 Lakes" Getty Images

In May, newly installed Wisconsin Tourism Secretary Sara Meaney waded into some deep and troubling waters when she made the claim that the Badger State has more lakes than its neighbor, frenemy and drinking partner, Minnesota.

Eric Litke at Politifact highlighted the seemingly innocuous exchange, which took place during an interview on Milwaukee's WTMJ radio.

“Wisconsin, many people may not be aware, actually has 15,000 freshwater lakes,” Meaney said.

“More than Minnesota?” host John Mercure asked, sensing a storm on the horizon.

“More than Minnesota,” Meaney doubled down. “Absolutely. We win. We win.”

While a tussle over who has more lakes wouldn’t get most states in a tizzy, Minnesota prides itself on how many bodies of water it has. The phrase “Land of 10,000 Lakes” appears on its license plate. Denying the significance of its lake count is asking for a fight.

Predictably, since then, the battle has played out online and in the media. On the face of it, Meaney is correct, as Litke points out: The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources lists 15,074 documented lakes in the state; the Minnesota DNR lists 11,482.

But it turns out that the Minnesota state agency only counts a body of water as a lake if it is more than 10 acres in surface area. Wisconsin counts everything, from half-acre farm ponds to 137,708-acre Lake Winnebago. Sixty percent of the lakes in the state don’t even have official names.

Applying the 10-acre standard to Wisconsin changes things dramatically. In that case, the dairy state has only 5,898 lakes, a little more than half of Minnesota's total.

Case closed, right? Not really. The problem is, there is no official definition of what constitutes a lake. Litke reports that the National Hydrography Dataset has 54 different terms, including lake, pond, basin, flowage and reservoir that more or less mean the same thing—lake.

Amy Myrbo, of the Limnological Research Center at the University of Minnesota, tells John Reinan at the Star Tribune that the definition of a lake is arbitrary. “There is no size or depth boundary between a pond or a lake,” she says. “There are not specific definitions of any of these terms. As scientists and as humans, we like to put a definition on things. But it’s all kind of a continuum.”

Whatever the definition, geographer Stephen Aichele at the U.S. Geological Survey tells Litke that the National Hydrography Dataset puts Minnesota on top; in terms of the total number of bodies of water (BOW), Minnesota dominates, 124,662 BOWs to 82,099.

That data also shows Minnesota has 14,444 BOWs over 10 acres while Wisconsin only has 6,176. And when the cutoff is raised to 25 acres, Minnesota still wins, with 8,466 to just 3,350 in Dairy Land. Even using a one-acre standard, Minnesota still dominates with 43,041 lakes compared to Wisconsin’s 22,973.

Due to these numbers, Politifact rated Meaney’s statement “false.” But Craig Trost, a spokesperson for the Wisconsin Department of Tourism, says the agency isn’t backing down. “What it comes down to is, what is the definition of a lake?” he tells Reinan. “And that’s where we get two different numbers. We’ll let Minnesota count its lakes and its Super Bowl rings any way they want to." [Minnesota has never won the Super Bowl. Wisconsin has won four times. This has very little to do with lakes.]

Wisconsin's dubious claim to the lake title may smell of sour grapes. Sabrina Imbler at Atlas Obscura reports that in 2017, a Facebook-based plot developed to take the lakes title from the Prairie Home state. Wisconsin resident Marissa Stockman posted an event called “Go to Minnesota and Steal Their 11,842 Lakes” saying she was “Just tired of them being so smug with their 10,000 lakes.”

Things escalated from there. Minnesotans proposed creating a robot kaiju made of lake cabins to defend their precious waters. And so forth.

Whatever the case, residents of both can take pride in their lake-cabin-and-beer-centered lifestyles. But they are both essentially parched wastelands when compared to Alaska, which has over 3 million lakes, at least according to their definition. Plus, they don’t need any robots to keep watch; they have enough bears to defend almost all of them.

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