Traverse City Record-Eagle

January 25, 2013

Lake Michigan water level may fall even lower


TRAVERSE CITY — The recent Arctic blast over the warmer waters of Lake Michigan likely will trigger rapid evaporation and sink lake levels to a historic low.

The lake level already edged a fraction of an inch below the 1964 record and probably will fall some more, said Keith Kompoltowicz, chief of watershed hydrology in Detroit.

Lake Michigan and Lake Huron are nearly 5.6 feet lower than the lakes' record high in 1986.

Frankfort City Manager Joshua Mills said he's resorted to "snow dances" in an effort to coax precipitation.

"I'd sacrifice my winter budget in a heartbeat to ensure the water level comes up," he said.

A snow dance wouldn't do much good, said National Weather Service meteorologist Mike Boguth in Gaylord.

"A lot of the snow is lake effect. It takes moisture right off the lake," he said.

Big snow storms from the south could make a real difference, but there have been few, he said.

This week's snowstorm dropped eight inches of lake effect snow, and nearly twice that much in Leelanau County. Traverse City's winter total is way below normal at 26.5 inches, compared to the 30-year average of 70 inches, Boguth said.

There's still reason for hope, said Hans Van Sumeren, director of Northwestern Michigan College's Great Lakes Water Studies Institute.

In the winter of 2007, Lake Superior lost about seven inches to evaporation, but snow, run-off, and a very wet spring replenished the lake, he said.

This winter's overall warmer temperatures have translated to less ice cover, which blocks evaporation. Rain, snow and run-off haven't kept up with the loss, Kompoltowicz said.

Lake Michigan typically rises a foot after the spring melt. But it gained only four inches last spring. Then came a dry, hot summer.

Mills said the water level is a serious issue in Frankfort, a Lake Michigan town known for its prized fishery.

"For us, it's a multi-million dollar industry," Mills said.

Last summer, salmon flopped helplessly in the mud on their upstream journey through the Betsie Bay channel to spawn. The state Department of Natural Resources halted fishing to protect the fish.

The DNR reported enough salmon made it through, but Mills worries about next year. He's talking to government agencies about dredging the channel. In the long-term, there needs to be an environmentally sensitive solution, he said.

"Our greatest asset is Lake Michigan and our waterways," he said.

Mills said low water will force many private marinas to spend significant amounts of money just to stay open.

Elmwood Township warned 17 sailboat owners that West Grand Traverse Bay's waters might be too shallow to moor. Water also might drop too low for four boat slips, said Jack Kelly, township supervisor.

Since early summer 2012, the water inside the boat basin dropped as much as 2 ½ to 3 feet, Kelly said.

Great Lakes water levels are known to naturally fluctuate every 30 years or so, but the lake hasn't risen as expected, said Andy Knott, executive director of The Watershed Center Grand Traverse Bay.

"There is something bigger happening," Knott said. "A prolonged period of drought over the last 12 to 15 years. Less water coming into the system. Much less ice cover."

Knott suspects climate change is part of the reason.

"Maybe a big part of it," Knott said.

Individuals can make a difference in recharging Michigan's aquifers, said Alan Steinman, president of the Annis Water Resources Institute at Grand Valley State University

His advice is to conserve water, such as turning off the tap when brushing your teeth.

"It may seem like a small individual action may not amount to much, but cumulatively it will make a difference," Steinman said.