Lake water levels on the rise

ESCANABA – Lake-lovers may have a little bit more to love this year as water levels rise from the record-setting lows seen in 2013.

For the past few years water levels in Lake Michigan and Lake Huron – which are grouped together in water level records maintained by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers – have been at record lows.

In December 2012 Lake Michigan and Huron were roughly 1 foot, 3 inches below the chart datum, a baseline measurement used by the USACE. Water levels dipped even lower for another record-setting month in January 2013 with levels at 1 foot, 5 inches below the chart datum.

“There was actually some legislation and money put towards dredging boat launches on the Great Lakes just to allow people to recreate with the low water levels,” said Jessica Mistak, fisheries unit supervisor stationed at the Department of Natural Resources Escanaba Post, noting that boaters were particularly hard hit by the low lake levels.

This year water levels are significantly higher. In January, levels were recorded at just two inches below the chart datum, and by mid-April lake levels were more than two inches above the chart datum – a full foot above the water level at the same time in 2013.

By April Lake Superior water levels had already risen a foot over the levels from the same time last year and were slightly higher than the lake’s long-term averages.

As the 2014 season progresses, lake levels are expected to continue rising for lakes Superior, Michigan, and Huron. Lake Superior is projected to remain consistent with or slightly above long-term averages, and Lake Michigan and Huron are expected to remain below or just at long-term averages through October.

The rise in water levels may be partially due to this winter’s deep freeze that left the Great Lakes nearly covered with ice. Lake Michigan was nearly 95 percent frozen over and Lake Superior was more than 95 percent frozen over, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory.

The majority of evaporation on each of the Great Lakes occurs before the onset of ice each year. According to NOAA-GLERL, the extreme ice cover and cold water run off from the melting of this winter’s above average snow pack could lower water temperatures through the fall of 2014, which would reduce the amount of evaporation and bring next summer’s lake levels in all of the Great Lakes closer to long-term averages.

For boaters the impacts of low lake levels range from reduced access to harbors and stranded docks to exposing boats to navigational hazards like shoals, but for wildlife the lake levels present different challenges.

“In general what it affects is fish spawning,” said Mistak, explaining fish that spawn in shallow water can suffer habitat loss during the crucial spawning period if the water levels are too low.

In addition to maintaining habitat for native species, the higher lake levels expected this season could prevent the expansion of unwanted species into newly exposed bottomlands.

“Some of those shorelines can be colonized by (invasive) species,” said Mistak, noting phragmites are a particular risk when additional shoreline is created by low lake levels.