2017-11-09 / Front Page

Lake levels still rising

Normally drops in October
By Eric Carlson
Of The Enterprise staff


WATER LEVELS in the Lake Michigan-Lake Huron basin did not decline as quickly as they usually do last month because of heavy rain. The solid line depicts recorded water levels and the dash within cross-hatching indicates projected levels. Average levels are depicted with a dash. WATER LEVELS in the Lake Michigan-Lake Huron basin did not decline as quickly as they usually do last month because of heavy rain. The solid line depicts recorded water levels and the dash within cross-hatching indicates projected levels. Average levels are depicted with a dash. Water levels in Lake Michigan aren’t following their usual pattern due to recent rain.

In fact, the water level is now about 10 inches above the level reached a year ago.

The news was reported out of the Army Corps of Engineers hydrology office in Detroit this week.

Normally, water levels in Lake Michigan would have declined sharply last month, but water levels are at about the same level as a month ago because of heavy precipitation, according to a report released by Army engineers.

Few people pay more attention to what’s happening in Lake Michigan waters surrounding Leelanau County that the folks at The Watershed Center – Grand Traverse Bay. Sarah U’Ren of Suttons Bay is a program manager at The Watershed Center.


EMPIRE BEACH shows signs of higher water levels in Lake Michigan with thinner strips of sand between dune grasses and the water. This photo was taken from the beach looking south. EMPIRE BEACH shows signs of higher water levels in Lake Michigan with thinner strips of sand between dune grasses and the water. This photo was taken from the beach looking south. Is Lake Michigan healthier because of water levels above their norm?

“Higher water levels in Lake Michigan are neither good nor bad,” U’Ren explained. “It’s just a fact of life that water levels in the Great Lakes fluctuate and result in changing conditions throughout the year, as well as from year-to-year.”

But higher water levels do come with environmental benefits, tending to put more water into coastal wetlands. That improves habitat for aquatic plants and animals including amphibians and birds, U’Ren said.

Higher water levels also expand habitat for fish, she added.

Water levels for all the Great Lakes continue to be above last year’s levels, according to the Army report. Currently, water levels in the Lake Michigan - Lake Huron basin are 10 inches above the same time last year.

Water levels are about two feet below an all-time high level set in 1986 and nearly four feet above an all-time low level recorded in 1964.

Lake Michigan is expected to drop by just one inch this month, but will continue to drop through January as it does every year.

For Dave Darga, proprietor of Harbor West Yacht Services, higher water levels are a welcomed sight. Darga, who serves as a part-time trustee on the Elmwood Township Board, also makes a living launching and retrieving boats from West Grand Traverse Bay.

“It’s always better to have more water under you at a launch ramp,” Darga explained. “You don’t need to back up as far to get a boat on and off the trailer – it’s just safer and easier.”

In addition, higher water levels are better for seawalls such as the one at the Elmwood Township Marina. Less stress is put on a seawall when pressure on both sides of the wall is more equal, Darga explained. When the ground on one side of the seawall is paved over and subjected to heavy traffic – and there’s only air on the other side of the seawall -- the seawall can be more easily damaged.

However, when the water is up on the seawall, the water pushes back against all the pressure from the soil, asphalt and vehicular traffic on the other side of the seawall.

In addition, deeper water in the marina makes it easier to de-ice pilings and any boats that remain in the water through the winter. Deeper water makes it easier for pumps to circulate water up from the bottom of the lake and prevent the surface from freezing, Darga explained.

As for ice, now that air temperatures are beginning to plummet, water temperatures will follow – and so will speculation about whether how much of Lake Michigan will freeze over this winter.

West Grand Traverse Bay is considered frozen when ice is solid between Traverse City and Power Island. The last thick layer of ice to cover the bay formed in the winter of 2013-2014. The bay froze again the following winter, but much less so. Nonetheless, those two winters were the first backto back freezing occurrences since the 1990’s.

Ice on the lake slows evaporation and tends to keep water levels higher than they otherwise would be.

Ice can also cause harm to shorelines. Riparians who allow vegetation to grow along their shoreline are better protected from erosion caused by ice than those who may “groom” their beaches, according to U’Ren.

“More vegetation along the shoreline not only keeps the shoreline better protected when water levels are up, it also protects shorelines from erosion caused by ice,” U’Ren said.

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