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How low can Great Lakes’ water go?
Dip is trouble for boaters, some wildlife
Paul Brinkmann
Green Bay Press-Gazette
02/11/2003


STURGEON BAY - This winter’s wimpy snowfall amounts and late-forming lake ice could mean the small rise in Lake Michigan water levels last year will be reversed, expert forecasters say.

Lake levels are dropping again after showing small gains last year. As of this week, Lake Michigan is only 7 inches above its record-low level set in 1964, and more than 3 feet below the record high of 1986.

The lake dropped 3 inches in the last four weeks. Compared to the same time last year, Lake Michigan is down 7 inches.

The growing possibility of lower levels could mean more problems for recreational and commercial boating, more dredging in local marinas and more applications for mooring permits. The low water also has created some barriers to upstream fish spawning areas for northern pike and steelhead trout.

At the same time, some wildlife such as geese and other fish species benefit from more shallow watery coastal habitat present during low water.

“We had very dry conditions this past year in Lake Huron and (Lake) Michigan and that’s why the levels dropped so quickly,” said Marie Strum, water resource engineer with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Detroit. “The low precipitation and evaporation is the reason.”

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

Locally, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources is bracing for the possibility that changes and problems caused by low water may continue or even get worse. Marinas along the western shore of Green Bay in Marinette and Oconto counties seem the hardest hit, said Tom Hansen, conservation warden supervisor for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources in Green Bay.

“We’re seeing more property damage accidents, people running aground, clipping off a lower unit, and more shoreline owners are wanting to put out mooring buoys,” Hansen said.

Preparation is the key to staying safe, many say.

“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.”

Ice that began forming several weeks ago won’t halt the current decline — only snow and rain can do that. If present trends continue, forecasters say it’s likely that by June the lakes will be between 4 and 6 inches below levels for the same month in 2002.

The snow pack from northern lower Michigan through the Upper Peninsula to Canada is only 10 inches in many places, where it’s usually about two-feet deep.

When the water drops, many docks are left unusable. That leads to more people seeking temporary moorings. A mooring is a semi-permanent anchor site that boaters must either walk or paddle to in a small dinghy or other vessel.

But even moorings become more complicated with low water. That’s because state law requires a permit for any moorings more than 150 feet from the ordinary high-water mark.

DNR wardens have attempted to crack down on local mooring violations given the low water conditions. They’ve written letters to boat owners and issued citations.

Hansen said the Wisconsin DNR also is seeing increased requests for dredging permits.

Charlie Kinsey, owner of Holiday Harbor marina in Fish Creek, said he dredged when levels dropped three years ago. Out of 24 slips, he has three that are now inaccessible.

“I’m through with dredging. I worried about it at first, but then I realized there’s nothing I can do about it,” Kinsey said. “Of course, I’d like to have the water come back up, whether its snow or rain.”

According to Strum, “The low lake levels are part of a normal cycle. 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.”

Gannett News Service contributed to this report.

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