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Lake Huron is near record low

by Candice Miller on November 2, 2012

10:28 PM, Nov 1, 2012

Sandy has small effect on lake levels

Lake Huron is near record low

By Beth LeBlanc | Times Herald

LAKEPORT — In his more than 60 years living on the Lake Huron beachfront in Lakeport, John Busch has seen the lake’s highs and lows.


He’s watched the beach stretch out for yards and yards in the 1950s. He’s seen the water creep closer and closer to the house in the 1970s, slapping against the siding on a wavy day. But its been years since Busch has seen the water as low as it is now.


This week, Busch was thankful for the added distance between his house and the waterfront.


With the outer edge of Superstorm Sandy stirring up high winds on Lake Huron and a lakeshore flood advisory on Monday, that extra beachfront kept the waves well away from Busch’s house.


This week’s stormy weather likely will cause a marginal increase in lake levels, but not enough to shift the tide of diminishing water, officials say.


Lakes Michigan-Huron just barely missed record lows for water levels in October, according to the Detroit District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The current lake level of 576.6 feet above sea level is about an inch and a half from October’s record low and about 6 inches from the all-time recorded low.


“Lake Michigan-Huron will likely continue its seasonal decline through the rest of the fall and into the early winter,” said Keith Kompoltowicz, chief of Great Lakes watershed hydrology at the Detroit District Army Corps of Engineers.


Kompoltowicz said the recorded low for all months on Lake Michigan-Huron last was reached in March of 1964, when the level was 576 feet. Lake levels started being recorded in 1918.


Lower levels could mean more beach frontage, issues with boat wells at marinas and lighter loads for commercial transportation.


Frank Frisk, maritime consultant for Vantage Point at the Great Lakes Maritime Center, said freighters traveling along the St. Clair River have not had to lighten their loads yet. The St. Clair River still offers a 27-foot draft depth, which is normal for most shipping channels.


“What they’re anticipating is problems in the future,” Frisk said. “They’ll have to light-load, and it’s going to cost the customer in the end.”


If the levels continue to decline, freighters would have to make more trips carrying lighter loads to satisfy their contracts.


The combination of precipitation over the water, runoff to the lake and evaporation on the water are the main sources of change in the lake levels. Thanks to a warm winter and dry summer, the lakes have experienced a decrease in precipitation and an increase in evaporation.


Rep. Candice Miller has other theories about the factors impacting lake levels. On Thursday, Miller asked the corps to conduct further research on the impact of water diversions from the Great Lakes.


“A variety of explanations have been provided that include the dry weather, lack of snow, warm air temperatures, and resulting increased evaporation,” Miller wrote in her letter to the corps. “However, I am concerned that one theory that has not been given sufficient review is the inter-basin diversion of water from the Great Lakes through the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal and down the Mississippi River.”


John Nevin, public affairs advisor at the International Joint Commission, said the impacts of the Chicago diversion constitute about a 2-inch decrease in water levels. However, Nevin said those 2 inches are more than compensated for by two other diversions from Lake Superior in to the lakes.


John Allis, chief of hydraulics and hydrology at the corps’ Detroit District, said the effect of dredging in the St. Clair River on the current low levels is minimal.


Before the 1900s, the St. Clair River was dredged for sand and gravel mining.


A series of channel deepening projects in the 1920s, ’30s, and ’60s were coordinated by the U.S. and Canadian governments and dredged by the corps.


Recent studies by the International Joint Commission reviewed the effects of the mining and channel deepening projects and discovered the projects contributed to a 16-inch decrease in lake levels in Lakes Michigan-Huron.


An additional 3 to 5 inches were lost from Lakes Michigan-Huron between 1960s and 2000. Nevin said erosion has not contributed to further water level decreases since 2000.


The corps will take water level measurements today for the month of October and release its six-month water level forecast on Monday.


Kompoltowicz expects this week’s storm will contribute a couple of inches to water levels, but that increase might be canceled out by the fall’s increased evaporation levels.


“This is the time of year when the lakes are usually in their decline … when evaporation usually wins out,” he said

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