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Great Lakes Article:

Lake water levels continue to rise
By Jeff Alexander
Muskegon Chronicle
Published May 5, 2005

Lake levels are up, summer is near and marinas are scrambling to get all their customers' boats in the water before the next warm weekend.

It's all good, right?

Not so fast.

Soaring gas prices will sting boaters this year. And the rising lake levels, though good for boaters and the shipping industry, conceal submerged logs and other hazards that were exposed two years ago when Great Lakes water levels neared record lows.

"We're looking really good this year as far as the water level," said Dave Wikman, harbor master at Muskegon's Hartshorn Marina. "The one thing that concerns me is the rise in lake levels has hidden some deadheads (submerged logs and other debris) near our launch ramp.

"Those deadheads are out of sight now, but hopefully not out of boaters' minds."

Boaters should always have a working knowledge of the waters they are navigating and exercise caution to avoid potentially hazardous shallow areas, said Tom O'Bryan, a civil engineer at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers district office in Grand Haven.

"If you recall a piling that was just barely above the water line last year and isn't there now, you have to assume it's still there ... just below the surface," O'Bryan said.

Water levels in Lake Michigan are currently six inches above last year at this time, and a foot higher than in April 2003, according to data compiled by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The lake level is projected to rise another 1 to 4 inches next month and possibly another two inches by July, depending on the weather.

Despite the lake level rebound from 2003, when Lake Michigan came within 5 inches of the record low set in 1964, the water level is still about 10 inches below its long-term average.

Low lake levels in 2003 made for wider beaches but hurt the shipping industry, which had to lighten loads on freighters to avoid running aground. An extra inch of lake water allows a 1,000-foot freighter to carry an additional 270 tons of goods, according to the Cleveland-based Lake Carriers' Association.

Many marinas were forced to dredge in 2003 so boats could get in and out of slips. And some municipal boat launches were left high and dry.

What a difference a foot of water makes. Marinas in West Michigan contacted by The Chronicle reported good conditions for this boating season.

"I keep a guage by the dock and our water level here is about 9 inches above where it was at this time last year," said John Ennenga, manager of the Whitehall Landing marina on White Lake. "We're fine, we won't have to do any dredging.

"Two years ago got real touchy," Ennenga said. "Last year was better and made us comfortable. We've gotten some more cushion this year."

The city of Grand Haven added an 18-foot extension to the Harbor Island boat launch in 2003 to deal with the near-record low water level. City officials who took soundings at the ramp late last year found the water depth was 4.5 feet at the dock, which is deep enough to handle almost any boat that would use the launch ramp, said Sec Garcia, Grand Haven's facilities manager.

Marina operators are even smiling on the north side of Muskegon Lake, which is shallower than the south side of the 4,150-acre lake.

"So far, so good," said Alice Lemieux, officer manager at Pointe Marine, located on the Bear Lake channel. "The water level is up from last year; it's still not where it belongs, but it looks like we won't have to dredge."

Ed Geerlings, general manager at Great Lakes Marina, said his mechanics have repaired several propellors in recent months after boaters hit bottom or struck submerged debris in Muskegon Lake. Aside from the danger of deadheads, Geerlings said boaters are anxious to get out on the water.

"We're launching boats like crazy -- 10 boats a day for 60 days," Geerlings said.

Water levels of the Great Lakes began to drop steadily in 1997, a decade after record high water levels sent some cottages in Grand Haven and other lakeshore communities tumbling into the lake. Federal officials who monitor lake levels have said it may take several years for the lakes to return to average levels.

Cynthia Sellinger, a hydrologist at the Ann Arbor-based Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory operated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said the levels of all five Great Lakes are much higher this spring than they were at the same time in 2004.

Sellinger blamed the below-normal levels of the previous half-dozen years on less rain and snow in the Great Lakes basin combined with more evaporation caused by unusually warm temperatures.

She said a wet fall last year, followed by average snowfall this winter, helped increase lake levels in all five Great Lakes.

Sellinger said water levels should remain above last year's amounts at least through the summer. "I know boaters are really excited about that."

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