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Great Lakes Article:

Summer rains little help for low lake levels
By John Charles Robbins
The Holland Sentinel
08/05/03


In his 77 summers spent at Ottawa Beach, Fred Vaas has seen the lake levels go up and down and up again.

So the fact that Lake Michigan is about 2-feet lower than its average depth is no surprise to Vaas -- although he admits this latest dip seems to be hanging around a lot longer than usual.

"It's usually up five years, then down five years," he said Monday, standing on an aging private dock on Lake Macatawa in Park Township.

"I don't know. It seems to be dragging its feet this time," said Vaas of the water level in the inland lake, and Lake Michigan, a short distance away.

"It hasn't come back like usual," he said.

An avid fall fisherman, Vaas has been out on the lakes every year since he was seven-days old -- his family liked the water, too.

The level of Lake Macatawa is an ever-changing reality, according to Vaas. As he stood on the dock with about a foot of water underneath, he said, "This was dry land in March."

And in the last four weeks he's seen the water level rise 3 inches.

"Don't know how long it'll last," he said, tossing a faded garden hose out to the end of the lopsided dock.

Vaas remembers back when he was a boy, about 1937, when the water in the inland lake was so low it created large sandy beaches in the area of Waukazoo point.

"The realtors went nuts," he said with a laugh. "Three years later (the beaches) were all under water."

Weather data for July show higher than average rainfall for the areas impacting the Great Lakes, however, rain totals for the last 12 months are considerably down, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Precipitation totals for July show lakes Michigan-Huron had 3.33 inches of rain, slightly above average for the month of 3 inches.But total rainfall in the region in the last 12 months amounted to just 26.67 inches, down 5.43 inches from the collective average of 32.10 inches. It represents about 83 percent of the average yearly rainfall affecting Lake Michigan and Lake Huron.

Today Lake Michigan's depth is 577.6 feet above sea level. That level is 22 inches below the lake's long-term average depth.

And Lake Michigan has reached its peak depth for the year and will begin its seasonal decline this month, according to the Corps of Engineers.

Scott Louis moved back to West Michigan after a 20 year absence and he said the low water levels are a drastic departure from what he remembers.

On Monday Louis was working on his 21-foot Bayliner near the public boat launch at Dunton Park in Holland Township, preparing for a late afternoon on Lake Macatawa.

Recently retired from the U.S. Navy, Louis moved to the township this summer. The boat is a recent addition to the family's recreational pursuits.

"It's way down," Louis said of the lake. "No where near what it used to be."

He said the water levels around Grand Haven are way down, as well.

And that's true of other inland waterways up and down the Lake Michigan coast.

"We're about a foot lower than where we were last year at this time," said Spark Overway, dock master at Sergeant Marina in Saugatuck.

The private marina on Kalamazoo Lake includes about 50 slips and accommodates all types of vessels, although larger sailboats are having trouble getting to the docks because of shrinking water levels.

The waterway winds through Saugatuck and connects with Lake Michigan.

Overway, citing the cyclical nature of the lake levels, said he's hoping the worst is over.

"They say it runs on a seven-year cycle. If that's true, next year we should be going up again," he said.

"Lake Michigan generally will lose about a foot of water a year just through evaporation ... and we don't have anything to build it back up after it evaporates," Overway said.

He said two things are needed to up the water levels of the big lake: a whole lot of rain and a whole lot of snow -- and not lake-effect snow storms.

"But our winters (lately) have been just lake-effect snow, with the moisture coming out of the lake (as icy cold air moves over the water).

"We need some snow storms coming out of the Rockies to dump on us," said Overway.

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