Great Lakes Environmental Directory Great Lakes Great Lakes environment Great Lakes grants exotic species water pollution water export drilling environment Great Lakes pollution Superior Michigan Huron Erie Ontario ecology Great Lakes issues wetlands Great Lakes wetlands Great Lakes Great Lakes environment Great Lakes watershed water quality exotic species Great Lakes grants water pollution water export oil gas drilling environment environmental Great Lakes pollution Lake Superior Lake Michigan Lake Huron Lake Erie Lake Ontario Great Lakes ecology Great Lakes issues Great Lakes wetlands Great Lakes Resources Great Lakes activist Great Lakes environmental organizations Great Lakes Aquatic Habitat air pollution alien species threatened rare endangered species ecological Great Lakes information Success Stories Great Lakes Directory Home/News Great Lakes Calendar Great Lakes jobs/volunteering Search Great Lakes Organizations Take Action! Contact Us Resources/Links Great Lakes Issues Great Lakes News Article About Us Networking Services

Great Lakes Article:

Scientists say low lake levels are natural

Associated Press

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 60,000.

"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," Nekvasil said.

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 low-water lines.

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 Science Center.

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 and invertebrates.

"Mother Nature did a multimillion dollar restoration project," he said.

This information is posted for nonprofit educational purposes, in accordance with U.S. Code Title 17, Chapter 1,Sec. 107 copyright laws.
For more information go to: If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for
purposes of your own that go beyond "fair use," you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.

Great Lakes environmental information

Return to Great Lakes Directory Home/ Site Map