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Snow joke: Winter weather wonít replenish Great Lakes
Little risk of flooding seen in region
Tom Henry
Toledo Blade
03/03/2003


Look at all that snow still on the ground.

Now, remind yourself that spring starts in 18 days. Winter coats, gloves, mittens, and scarves will soon be stashed as nose-biting weather gradually gives way to balmy temperatures, sunshine, and the arrival of the proverbial robin.

Logically, that brings us to the topic of ... drought, despite all the snow melt that is the vestige of a wet winter.

Drought?

Yes. Call it an irony of science, but the Great Lakes region - home of the worldís largest collection of fresh surface water - remains entrenched in a drought. Even as our shoes are soaked from melting snow, researchers say wells are going dry and they predict the lakes will be down 8 to 13 inches this summer.

That will hurt the region because commercial shipping and recreational boating help anchor the local economy.

Great Lakes shipping means more than $4 billion a year to the U.S.-Canadian economies and provides some 70,000 jobs. The Lake Carriers Association in Cleveland, which represents domestic shippers, said every inch of lost water translates to millions of dollars in lost revenue, because less cargo is hauled per trip.

Gauge recreational boating activity by the number of registered boaters and youíll always find Great Lakes states, especially Michigan and Ohio, near the top.

The region rode the high water levels for 30 years until the lakes plunged in the late 1990s. Experts are puzzled as to whether global warming is is the cause or merely a contributing factor.

"We were right on average February to June, then hit a dry spell," said Tim Calappi, physical scientist for the Army Corps of Engineers in Detroit.

Compounding the problem this winter was an usually dry January: Lake Huron, which replenishes Lake Erie, had a little more than one-third of an inch of precipitation that month. Its norm is 2.09 inches for that month, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administrationís Great Lakes lab in Ann Arbor.

Lake Erie had 1.54 inches of precipitation for January, below its norm of 2.44 inches.

The Great Lakes region has been under a drought "off and on since at least 1999," Cynthia Sellinger, NOAA hydrologist, said. "The last six to eight months, itís been really strong," she added.

The silver lining: Things could have been a whole lot worse if this winter hadnít been so cold.

Sustained arctic-like temperatures froze Lake Erie, sealing it off from further evaporation. None of the other Great Lakes froze over, but each came close - even venerable Lake Superior, which rarely freezes because it is so large and deep. It had only limited patches of open water. About 90 percent of Lake Huronís surface was frozen, said Mr. Calappi and Ms. Sellinger.

The region is not likely to have much flooding, unless it gets thunderstorms that last for days and the heavy rain falls while the ground is still frozen, they said.

Wells are low. Therefore, most of the melted snow will have places to go once the soil thaws. That, at least, should help replenish groundwater supplies, they said.

An exception could be in some cities, where pavement blocks water flows.

Bob Stevenson, Toledo utilities director, said city crews have been clearing catch basins and storm drains in hopes of keeping the sewage network from being overwhelmed.

"Normally the rule of thumb on snow melt is if it melts in its normal course and is gradual, thereís no issue. If we get a 60-degree day and it melts all in one day, we will have a lot of runoff," he said.

In Findlay, the fickle Blanchard River floods frequently. That city also has been hit by numerous snowstorms in recent weeks.

Mayor John Stozich said heís keeping his fingers crossed.

"The cold weather helps you because it doesnít thaw so fast," he said.

The long-term outlook isnít too promising: Forecasters call for below-normal precipitation through at least May, Ms. Sellinger said.

"And you never know. [We] might have a really wet spring. But the winter has been really dry," she said.

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