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Great Lakes Article:

Warm winters lead to low water levels on Great Lakes
Gene Schabath
Gannett News Service
02/07/2003

HARSENS ISLAND, Mich. - Great Lakes water levels are falling again after last year’s slight rise, to the great distress of those who rely on the lakes for fun or commerce. And there is no evidence that a recent cold snap will reverse the trend.

The lack of an ice cap during several recent warmer-than-average winters has been a major factor in the decline, along with persistent drought. Without a winter cover, evaporation drains the lakes during cold months.

Ice is forming, but experts say that won’t halt the current decline — only snow and rain can do that. Neither is expected, and if present trends continue, forecasters say it’s likely that by June the lakes will be between 4 to 6 inches below levels for the same month in 2002.

Recreational boaters already have found it increasingly difficult to navigate or find a spot to launch their boats, and big lakes freighters carrying coal and iron ore have had to lighten their loads.

“The ice cover will reduce the lake effect snow that borrows moisture from the lake,” said Marie Strum, water resource engineer with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Detroit.

But only steady precipitation will prevent a deeper plunge in lake levels, Strum said.

The most graphic example of the dry conditions is the 7-inch decline in January in Lake Huron-Michigan from the same period one year ago. Lake St. Clair and Lake Superior are down 2 inches, Lake Erie an inch and Lake Ontario, 8 inches.

“We had very dry conditions this past year in Lake Huron and Michigan and that’s why the levels dropped so quickly,” Strum said. “The low precipitation and evaporation is the reason.”

With hopes apparently dashed that last year’s rise in water levels will continue, experienced sailors are renewing a now-familiar warning to boaters: Keep an eye on your water depth charts.

For sailors on Lake St. Clair, the prediction of lower water levels is more critical because the heart-shaped lake that borders Detroit — the most heavily used waterway in Michigan — is also the most shallow.

That could mean some costly boat repairs for mariners who run into objects just below the surface, said George Czeisperger, owner of The Marina on the Salt River, which empties into Lake St. Clair.

Preparation is the key to staying safe.

“It’s not a big deal if you ... read your charts and don’t go to places that you’ve never been before,” said boater Chuck Brockman, who has been cruising Lake St. Clair for 50 years. “Experienced boaters will be OK. The newer boater will have to learn.”

Substantial increases in precipitation don’t appear likely in the next few months, said Bill Deedler, meteorologist with the National Weather Service in White Lake Township, Mich.

To make matters worse, the snowpack from northern lower Michigan through the Upper Peninsula to Canada is skimpy and that means less run-off when the spring comes, Deedler said.

“The snowpack usually determines the lake level for the coming year,” Deedler said. “They should have a couple of feet, but in some places they have only 10 inches.”

Strum said the Great Lakes and Lake St. Clair are 18 to 20 inches below the long-term average, but are well above the record lows set in 1964.

“The low lake levels are part of a normal cycle,” Strum said. “We were fortunate to have above normal levels for such a long time and that’s why these low levels seem like a significant change.”

Two years ago, marina owners such as Czeisperger had to spend thousands of dollars to dredge boat wells and the Salt River.

“The boats couldn’t get out — they kept hitting the bottom,” Czeisperger said. “Last year the water was up and that helped. If the water drops 6 inches this summer, that’s a lot.”

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