Traverse City Record-Eagle

Our Views

September 26, 2012

Editorial: Low water levels pose problems

Nature moves at its own pace, sometimes to our frustration.

Lake levels are a prime and present example. 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 U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is forecasting a range that could break the all-time record low set in 1964.

Benzie County's Betsie Bay, where the Betsie River feeds into Lake Michigan, is an example of that change. Water levels in the bay are so low that salmon are having a difficult time getting into the river and to upstream spawning grounds.

Last week, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources said it will ban salmon fishing in early October where the river feeds into Betsie Bay because of low water levels.

Todd Kalish, the state Department of Natural Resource's acting director of the Lake Michigan basin, said fishermen walking on the shoreline — where the water used to be — are spooking fish.

The pending shutdown has raised concerns from fishermen and tourism-dependent businesses in the Frankfort-Elberta area. In fact, Frankfort city officials have already applied to the Army Corps and the state for permission to dredge the mouth of the Betsie. Some fishermen said that while recent heavy rains helped salmon get into the river, they believe the long-term solution is dredging to remove a buildup of sediment and sand.

Officials worry that the loss of fishing could do real damage to the Frankfort-Elberta area in terms of lost tourism dollars, but low-water worries go beyond salmon.

State Rep. Ray Franz, R-Onekama, has called on Congress to tap federal Harbor Maintenance Trust Funds for dredging and maintenance work at 15 harbors in Michigan with low water levels, including Leland.

All this talk of low water must be measured against a wider context.

A 10-year study of Great Lakes water levels determined Lake Michigan water levels will remain within their historical range in the near future. The $15 million International Upper Great Lakes study also said lake levels may not be as extreme as previously predicted. We must also remember that as recently as the late 1980s, Lake Michigan homeowners were scrambling to protect homes from record-high water levels. Damage to docks, breakwalls, roads and structures of all kinds was in the millions.

The state must do what is best for the salmon fishery now and in the long run, and must carefully weigh whether dredging is a viable short-term solution. If so, speed will count.

In the long term — which in Lake Michigan terms could be 25 years or more — all we can do is adapt.

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