2018-09-06 / Front Page

Dams work to keep lake levels

By Jen Murphy
of the Enterprise staff


RECENT RAINS have caused lake levels to rise and the Leland Dam to churn out whitewater to lower Lake Leelanau, which is six inches high. RECENT RAINS have caused lake levels to rise and the Leland Dam to churn out whitewater to lower Lake Leelanau, which is six inches high. With Lake Leelanau water levels at least half a foot higher than normal, whitewater is pouring out of the Leland Dam and Leelanau County maintenance director Jerry Culman is working hard to manage the flow.

“Everything is saturated. We’ve gone from one extreme to the other,” Culman said.

The lake is six inches above a Circuit Court order at the Narrows, and higher at the south basin, he explained.

He’s doing what he can, lowering the gate on the Leland River that regulates water flow to Lake Michigan.

“The past 24 hours, even though I’ve lowered the gate, the level only came down one inch,” he said. “I’m hoping I can slow things up in a day or so. The amount of water and energy that’s going on is dangerous. It’s whitewater almost down to Carlson’s.”

It’s a tricky situation to manage since too much water can cause erosion issues as it flows through Fishtown. He’s been down to the dam every morning since last week trying to make adjustments to the water flow, and he said he will go down multiple times a day so charters can get in and out of Fishtown.

So Culman will be patient.

“I would like to drop the gate, but because of the Lake Michigan high water levels, it doesn’t flow ... and only so much comes through the Leland River,” he said. “It’s a bottleneck effect. We need to dredge the Leland River to increase the amount of water that can flow. We have 20-some miles of lake trying to go through…

“We’ll get there, it’s just going to take some time.”

Unlike the dry period for early- and mid-August, rain — often heavy — has been a common occurrence on the peninsula as of late.

For the 14-day period ending Aug. 23, the National Weather Service volunteer weather station in Maple City recorded only .02-inch of rain — a few sprinkles. Corn crops wilted and the cherry crop never sized out to its potential.

But during the 12 days that ended Tuesday, some 6.13 inches of rain was recorded at the station. And some owners of rain gauges reported measuring much more precipitation.

The heaviest of those rains fell on Labor Day afternoon with 1.74 inches. Rain again fell throughout Leelanau County yesterday.

Glen Lake’s rising water level, however, has been welcomed.

“We are trying to re-establish the target levels,” said Glen Lake watershed biologist Rob Karner. “We are getting back to normal mode… (recent rains) certainly helped. Our August drought put the dam down to the levels to what we call the ‘water sharing program’ to maintain the level in the Crystal River.”

In short, the rain has helped alleviate that problem. The lakes have different personalities, with Lake Leelanau draining a geographic area nearly the length of the peninsula. Glen Lake, on the other hand, is fed only by a relatively small circle land that bordered by hilly terrain.

John Kassarjian, former water level committee chair for Glen Lake Association, said a 1.92-inch increase in Glen Lake’s water level has brought the lake back to normal. Prior to recent precipitation events, the lake level was low. “But not critical,” he said. “It was getting pretty close. ... We have a strategy, mandated by the court, and we were right on target as of 12 (midnight) on the 4th.”

Now that the lake level is restored, the association will continue to monitor levels in the lakes and the Crystal River, according to Kassarjian.

The dam regulating the water flow into the Crystal River is essentially wide open, he said. “That’s all we can do.”

What if more rain comes and lake levels continue to rise?

“It will not be devastating to the lake, but it will flood the people around the river. At that point, we will cut back the water flow to minimize flooding levels,” Kassarjian said.

“If it goes up maybe two inches on shoreline, it’s not a real serious problem, but if we get high winds then (that) can cause erosion. And if the monitor on the Crystal River indicates we are starting to flood houses, then we start to cut back the river flow.”

It’s a balance dam operators strike year-round, reacting to Mother Nature’s precipitation whims.

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