say low lake levels are natural
CHICAGO - Sean Scimera
is squatting on a bucket on Belmont Harbor's ice, smoking
and watching for tugs on his two ice-fishing lines.
He's been doing this a couple
times a week for 30 winters, but usually not here in the
reflection of the North Side's luxury high-rises.
He prefers the waters closer
to downtown at Burnham Harbor. But Lake Michigan is about
as low as it's been in a half-century, and all of his
favorite holes are too shallow.
On the unfamiliar ice, he
pulls a finger-length perch from the hole and tosses it
back through. "Bait," he says.
"There are bigger perch and
a lot of trout at Burnham," he says. "I haven't gotten
a trout here yet. I haven't seen one."
It's not a big deal for Scimera,
who says he's fishing mostly for stress relief. But dropping
water levels are a problem for many others who use the
five Great Lakes for recreation or business, from yacht
club members who pay to dredge deeper marinas to cargo
shippers who can't fill their freighters as full.
The lakes have been receding
since 1997 in the latest example of what scientists call
a healthy and natural cycle. Some lakes are approaching
record low levels.
Lakes Michigan and Huron -
essentially the same lake but pinched to a narrow channel
by Michigan's peninsulas - have dropped 3 1/2 feet. Their
February level was 576.64 feet above the Great Lakes "datum,"
a measuring stick that starts in the lakes' outlet in
the St. Lawrence River.
The record low for February
was 576.15 feet in 1964, according to the National Oceanic
and Atmospheric Administration.
The reason for the decline
is evaporation, and especially winter evaporation, said
hydrologist Cynthia Sellinger of the agency's Great Lakes
Environmental Research Center in Ann Arbor, Mich.
"Since 1997 there was the
stongest El Nino on record and then there was a two-year
La Nina," she said. "With both of those we got warmer
temperatures in the Great Lakes region."
Warmer winters have kept ice
from forming to block evaporation except along the shore,
Sellinger said. The water, retaining heat from summer,
is warmer than the air above it and so rises with the
warmth into the air.
Industry groups constantly
calling her for a forecast get a one word answer: lower.
Sellinger says shippers tell
her they lose between $11,000 and $22,000 a day for every
inch the water drops.
The Lake Carriers Association,
an industry group, won't share shippers' rates or discuss
lost revenue. But vice president Glen Nekvasil said tonnage
is way down with the water. In 1997 the lakes' largest
freighters carried about 70,000 tons. Now they're carrying
"If it's a mild winter they
can get started sooner and keep going later to pick up
an extra cargo or two," Nekvasil said. "But there isn't
a lot you can do about it. Nobody can make it rain or
make it snow."
At times like these, shippers
start worrying about seemingly far-fetched proposals to
send Great Lakes water to the Southwest or overseas.
"These situations show that
we have to defend this resource and keep it for ourselves,"
The current shoreline is just
fine for many property owners who battled erosion during
high-water years of the 1990s. At that time groups such
as southwestern Michigan's Lake Michigan Shore Association
protested joint Canadian-American rules governing the
release of water from Lake Superior into the rest of the
Great Lakes system.
The group said the International
Joint Commission governing water releases was keeping
Lake Michigan artificially high.
The prospect for a return
to high water still worries the association, said group
treasurer Edward Fencl of Saugatuck, Mich. The association
wishes the government could release more or less water
from locks to stabilize the swings.
But Nekvasil said dumping
as much as possible from Superior for a summer probably
would raise Michigan just a half-inch.
Geologist Todd Thompson, who
has spent a career studying the habits of the 14,000-year-old
lakes, says trying to control them is futile. The Indiana
Geological Survey scientist said the lake has fluctuated
routinely - often at 30-year intervals from extreme high
to extreme low - for thousands of years.
"This is your house on the
lake. This is the lake on your house," he jokes during
presentations to property owners. "Any questions?"
Thompson bases his theory
on datings of old lakeshore ridge lines and layers of
gravel under beaches that indicate the locations of previous
One exception in the chain
is Lake Ontario, on the downstream end of the system.
It's more regulated because of locks that plug the St.
Lawrence River, and Thompson said it's a good example
of why no one should want static lake levels. That leads
to a static environment.
Cattails have taken over the
Ontario shoreline because of the constant water level.
That's good for muskrats, but not so good for northern
pike, an economically important game fish and wetlands
spawner that has suffered in Lake Ontario since the St.
Lawrence Seaway was completed in the 1960s, said Douglas
Wilcox, a scientist who is part of a team studying Lake
Ontario for the International Joint Commission.
"What the (Lake Ontario) environment
needs is what it used to have - periodic high levels and
periodic low levels," said Wilcox, the branch chief for
wetlands with the U.S. Geological Survey's Great Lakes
Wilcox contrasts Lake Ontario
with one of his study plots on Lake Michigan near Arcadia,
Mich., which sprang back to life as the water subsided.
In the early 1990s water covered everything up to a rocky
shore. Now grass seeds stored in the mud have sprouted.
Wilcox went there last summer and found it full of fish
"Mother Nature did a multimillion
dollar restoration project," he said.