2018-05-03 / Front Page

Big lakes struggle to drain

Crystal River running high
By Eric Carlson
Of The Enterprise staff


THE VIEW of the Leland River from the bridge on M-22 looking east this week included ice floes exiting Lake Leelanau toward Lake Michigan via the Leland Dam. THE VIEW of the Leland River from the bridge on M-22 looking east this week included ice floes exiting Lake Leelanau toward Lake Michigan via the Leland Dam. April showers haven’t brought very many May flowers yet – but last month’s unseasonably wet and wintery weather has been doing a number on some of Leelanau County’s inland lakes.

Bill Meserve is chairman of the Glen Lake Association’s water level committee. He’s been struggling to keep pace with the unusual weather and its impact on the lake.

The association is tasked with controlling a dam that regulates water levels in Glen Lake and in the Crystal River which flows into Lake Michigan. The dam is operated under a court order that contains an algorithm outlining how the lake association should set the dam to balance the flow of water out of the lake and into the Crystal River.

“The last 10-or-so inches of snow we received in April drove the lake level up by about three inches,” Meserve said this week. “And the Crystal River is running as high as some of us have seen it.”

Earlier this week, he and others on the water level committee were keeping an eye on a “breech point” on a sharp loop in the river just downstream of the Leelanau School campus in Glen Arbor Township that was threatening to overflow and bypass the riverbed itself.

“I’m pretty sure we’re going to be fine, but ‘ice out’ this year is about three weeks behind the normal time we see ice disappear on the lake,” Meserve continued.

“In fact, I’m declaring ‘ice out’ today,” Meserve said on Monday. “Finally, most of the ice left in the lake appears to have washed up on shore and won’t do any damage.”

“Ice-out” is an important milestone in Lake Leelanau as well.

A county-owned dam helps control water levels on Lake Leelanau. County maintenance director Jerry Culman is responsible for keeping track of water levels and setting the dam to control water levels according to a court-order.

The order calls for the dam to be set so water levels in Lake Leelanau rise in the spring beginning on April 15 or whenever ice leaves the lake – whichever occurs later. Keeping water levels lower in the winter helps prevent ice damage to shorelines.

As of Tuesday morning, Culman was not quite ready to declare ‘ice out’ on Lake Leelanau. He said he was keeping a close eye on a significant amount of ice remaining in north Lake Leelanau between Cemetery Point and Houdek Creek.

The Leland Dam can be remotely controlled by an automated system, but Culman said the weather and water conditions have been changing so rapidly this spring that he has kept the mechanisms on “manual” control.

On Tuesday, Culman reported that water level gauges near the M-204 bridge over the narrows between north and south Lake Leelanau were about eight inches above where they are normally at this time of year.

“I think we’ll be alright,” Culman said. “We’ve got the gates on the dam three-fourths open, and the overflow bay on the dam is still dry. At this point, we just need to be patient and let Mother Nature take her course.”

Residents of Little Traverse Lake need to rely almost entirely on Mother Nature to control water levels because there is no dam anyone can manipulate to control water levels.

David Skjaerlund, president of the Little Traverse Lake Property Owners association said only a few properties along the shoreline have been impacted by higher water levels so far this spring.

“Water tables are saturated with seasonally elevated levels in both Shalda Creek and Little Traverse Lake,” Skjaerlund said. “We’re looking forward to levels dropping as spring finally advances forward with hopefully normal rainfall events.”

Historically, the average amount of precipitation recorded each April at a National Weather Service site in Maple City is 2.8 inches. This April, 4.88 inches of precipitation was recorded.

Last year, no snowfall was recorded in April at Maple City. This year, on April 18, the snow depth was measured at 20 inches. As of this week, almost all of it had melted.

The quick snowmelt left some fields vulnerable to wild fires, although none were reported in Leelanau County. Rain started falling Tuesday night and is predicted by the National Weather Service to continue into Friday.

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