Weather lapping up lakes
Great Lakes near record lows; dry spell
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
The Great Lakes could spend this summer at their lowest
levels since 1964.
With lake levels already down, the Great Lakes are expected
to keep receding this year because of lingering conditions
from El Nino, a weather pattern that could usher in warmer
and drier weather across the region through the summer.
Lower lake levels would expose larger swaths of beach.
The situation could also stem some shore land erosion
that - just a few years ago - had some homeowners along
Lake Michigan scurrying to protect their properties.
But lower lake levels would hurt the shipping industry
because boats would have to lighten their loads, and some
harbors and yacht clubs would need dredging.
Also, less water in the big lakes could sharpen debate
over who uses Great Lakes water and for what purposes.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers recently offered its
first glimpse of what it expects Great Lakes levels to
reach by the middle of summer.
By July, all of the lakes are expected to be at or below
their levels of 2001, which were the lowest since the
record in 1964. The Corps predicts that Lake Michigan
will peak this summer at a level ranging from six inches
above to two inches below its high mark in 2001.
"The big difference this year is El Nino," said Philip
Keillor, coastal engineering specialist for the University
of Wisconsin Sea Grant Institute. "Dry conditions are
predicted, and we don't see any relief."
With little rain last fall and lower-than-normal snowfall
so far this winter, El Nino's warm and dry ways mean the
lakes are not expected to capture enough precipitation,
Minimal ice cover and several bursts of cold, dry weather
this winter literally sucked up warmer surface water in
the lakes through evaporation, according to the Army Corps
of Engineers. Dry soil conditions will absorb melted snow
and rainwater more than normal this spring, leaving less
water to replenish lakes, the corps said.
Boat owners worried
The near-record lows are creating problems for Great
Lakes shippers as well as recreational boaters.
The South Milwaukee Yacht Club caters to powerboats and
tries to keep 6 feet of depth in the harbor to accommodate
its biggest boats, which need 4 feet of draft.
"We are obviously very concerned about not having enough
lake water levels," said Tom Schulz, commodore of the
Schulz expected to spend at least $40,000 for dredging
the mouth of the harbor this year.
But for the Port of Milwaukee, dredging is not an option
because it could harm the foundations of dock walls, according
to Larry Sullivan, chief engineer at the port.
The water level in the harbor is within an inch of its
minimum depth, so some ships carrying coal, salt and stone
and other commodities might not be able to enter the harbor
this year. Others will be forced to carry less cargo,
Milwaukee's situation is happening all over the Great
Lakes, said Glen G. Nekvasil, for the Lake Carriers' Association
Great Lakes vessels have to lose 70 to 270 tons of cargo
for each inch they must lighten their load, and that raises
operating costs, Nekvasil said.
"What we have to understand is that this is a problem,
and there's nothing you can do about it," he said.
The Lake Carriers' Association says low lake levels underscore
the need for dredging in some harbors.
"We have to make sure that we do our best to protect
our water," Nekvasil said.
On that point, Cameron Davis, executive director of the
Lake Michigan Federation, agreed.
There have been failed attempts in the past to export
Great Lakes water out of the basin, in part because such
deals were not economical.
"But as demand for water increases, those economies might
not continue to work in favor of the Great Lakes," Davis
Communities close to Lake Michigan that use well water
are beginning to consider the lake as a source of drinking
water. Waukesha, New Berlin and Germantown are local examples.
Davis' group is not opposed to such uses. But better
standards need to be written so the governing body over
such decisions, the Council of Great Lakes Governors,
can decide fairly in the future, he said.
Some good news
One advantage of the low water levels is that those living
along the lake who battled shoreline erosion during the
1990s don't have much to worry about now.
Back in 1993, owners of large homes in Whitefish Bay
were seeking permits to dump soil on the property to shore
up their bluffs over Lake Michigan. With lower water levels,
that's not happening today.
"I've worked here for three years, and there have been
no requests for shore land erosion permits," said Joel
Jaster, the village building inspector.
The low water also means some recovery of wetlands is
possible, and some shore land birds and animals also might
have more habitat, said Vicki Harris, water quality and
habitat restoration specialist for the Sea Grant Institute.