BY GLENN PUIT
TRAVERSE CITY — Lake Michigan water levels are 11 inches lower than last year, and if drought conditions continue the lake could set a record low mark.
The continued drop in Lake Michigan water levels affects lakefront property owners on Grand Traverse Bay and fishermen who navigate northern Michigan's harbors, canals, and rivers. Beach fronts on the bay are rocky and exposed, and boaters have to exercise caution when traversing waterways.
"You don't notice it so much in the big lake, but you notice it in the harbors and toward the docks," said commercial fisherman Joel Petersen, who fishes out of Leland and Muskegon.
Leland Harbor's south breakwall is deteriorating from low levels, he said, and boaters must be cautious so they don't bottom out on the Leland River.
"It means we can't carry as much on the boat anymore," Petersen said. "We often carry four nets, and when they are wet, they are heavy. Now we can only carry two, so it takes us twice as long and costs more money."
Petersen added that large freighters are carrying smaller loads, too.
"I know the freighters carrying gravel and salt — they are having to reduce capacity," Petersen said.
A relentless drought and a weak winter with very little ice are to blame, experts said.
This week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture declared Michigan a natural disaster area due to heat and drought.
"Typically water levels drop in the fall and winter and go up in the spring, but we didn't see much of a rise this spring," said Craig Stow, a researcher at the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration's Great Lakes Environmental Research Lab in Ann Arbor. "It's always a balance between evaporation and precipitation, and when the water is warm, you get a lot of evaporation."
Mark Breederland, an extension educator for the Michigan Sea Grant, said Lake Michigan is 23 inches below the long-term average.
"Most people say plus or minus a foot from the long-term average is the sweet spot," Breederland said. "Well, we are outside the sweet spot zone."
Lakes Michigan and Huron are in the midst of a decade-long stretch of below-average water levels, said Keith Kompoltowicz, chief of watershed hydrology at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' Detroit District.
The Corps' forecast range for water levels in Lake Michigan has the lake on track to possibly break the all-time record low set in 1964.
The Corps' official data on Lake Michigan water levels dates back to 1918.
"We have seen more winters and springs with drier than average conditions and low snowfall," Kompoltowicz said.
Jennifer McKay is a policy specialist at the Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council in Petoskey.
She said Lake Superior also is lower, while lakes Ontario, Erie and St. Clair are higher.
"(Low water levels in Lake Michigan) have been a concern for many years to many different entities," McKay said. "The Great Lakes are dynamic, living ecosystems that change from one day to the next. You will see fluctuations from day to day, seasonally, annually, and over the long-term, and these fluctuations in the Great Lakes are primarily based on nature trends in precipitation and temperature."