Traverse City Record-Eagle

November 1, 2012

Record low lake levels possible

Projections: Lake Michigan threatens all-time low mark


TRAVERSE CITY — Lake Michigan water levels still threaten to hit record lows, despite a wet October.

Keith Kompoltowicz, chief of watershed hydrology for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' Detroit District, said the Great Lakes Basin received above-average precipitation for October, yet the Corps' lake level projections still have the lake threatening the all-time low water mark for Lake Michigan set in 1964.

"If we were to see a very similar winter to what we saw last winter, then I would say, yes, the potential is very real for new record lows for the next six months," Kompoltowicz said.

The lake is 14 inches lower than at this time last year. A snow-deprived winter and hot summer prompted less water run-off and more evaporation. The result: exposed, rocky shorelines on Grand Traverse Bay and increased calls for dredging shallow ports, harbors and river mouths throughout northern Michigan.

The dredging of the Betsie River mouth is a topic of discussion in Benzie County because salmon struggled to migrate this year due to low water levels, which in turn trimmed tourism.

Mark Breederland, extension educator with the Michigan Sea Grant, said low water levels are bad news for some but good news for others. Among the former, Great Lakes shipping companies face lighter cargo loads on freighters thanks to low water, which raises the costs of shipped goods.

"It's having real impacts on people. (Shippers) have to lighten loads on all their boats, and that costs all of us," Breederland said.

But coastal wetlands benefit from changing water levels. The occasional exposure of plant roots can be a benefit to wetlands, Breederland said.

The all-time record low for the lake was 576 feet in March 1964. The monthly mean for October of this year was 576.6 feet.

Experts said the lake is 70 to 72 inches lower than the all-time record high set in 1986. To demonstrate just how much the lake has dropped since the record high, Breederland takes a tape measure, stretches it out 72 inches, and sets one end on the water's surface.

"Six feet of difference," Breederland said. "I did it at Fishtown ... it's amazing."

The Traverse City area received 5.92 inches of rain in October as of Wednesday afternoon. That's two inches higher than the average.

"Its been a wet month," said Jim Keysor, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service.