TRAVERSE CITY — Rickey McDowell added two sections to his dock that juts into the west arm of the Grand Traverse Bay last year because the water, reaching all-time lows, was just too shallow.
The water’s still low, McDowell said, but it’s in significantly better shape compared to last year.
“I think I’d like it a little higher so it’s a little deeper for the kids to play in,” he said.
Still, McDowell prefers lake levels on the lower side than the high side; when he moved to Peninsula Drive 20 years ago, the water was so high it flooded his basement.
Scientists predict that lake levels in lakes Michigan and Huron will be around a foot higher than last year, but still a good 16 inches below long-term averages for the next half-year.
“Even with very dry conditions, we don’t see any threat for any other lows over the next six months,” said Keith Kompoltowicz, the watershed hydrology branch chief of the U.S. Army Corp of Engineer’s Detroit District.
Higher lake levels are a good thing, environmental groups said, because more water helps restore shoreline ecosystems that took a hit last year.
“With the water levels being low lately, there’s been a lot of issues with lower level marks and folks having emergent vegetation and losing the near-shore habitat, where there’s lots of opportunities for fish nurseries and plant growth,” said Christine Crissman, the executive director for The Watershed Center Grand Traverse Bay. “That water levels are up is a good thing because there’s more habitat that’s available.”
Small mouth bass and other species targeted by anglers often inhabit the shoreline area, and blue herons enjoy the insects that live in the plants there, Crissman said. Bald eagles also like to eat the shoreline fish.
Changes in lake levels also mean property changes for those who live along the shoreline.
“When it goes down I get more property, and when it goes up I get less,” McDowell said.
The bottomlands, or land that serves as the bottom of the lake when water levels are high are nutrient-rich and attract growth.
“Since levels have been low for so long, lots of places have seen a growth that they don’t necessarily want,” said Emily Shaw, education and volunteer coordinator at the Inland Seas Education Association. “If it were submerged, terrestrial plants wouldn’t have been able to grow, but now because it’s exposed, invasive plants could come in and thrive in that area.”
The Army Corp of Engineers, along with the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration and a corresponding Canadian entity monitor and calculate lake levels, for which data has been collected since 1918.
Last year lake levels reached a record low in December and January, edging the past low in 1964.
Scientists were hesitant to predict whether lake levels will continue to rise or fall, especially after the seasonal rise in lake levels after a low January also was unprecedented.
“When the last low water level records were set, they were set for a period of 12 consecutive months,” said Drew Gronewold, a hydrologist in NOAA’s Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory. “This most recent low really was a dramatic drop and a very dramatic rise again.”