Lake levels up this spring: Finally, good news for boaters, beachcombers, shippers

REGION – When was the last time you heard good news about lake levels? It's been a while, says Scott Thieme, chief hydrologist for the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers in Detroit. Look for a little "bump" this spring and summer. Not a flood, but definitely a measurable trickle. The spring melt from one of the snowiest winters in recent years is expected to hike the water levels in both Lake Michigan and area inland lakes.

"If you look at where we were last November on Lake Michigan and the bays, we were within three to four inches of the all-time low," said Thieme. "It was not looking good then. But this winter, certain storm tracks brought in moisture from outside the Great Lakes basin, from the Gulf of Mexico, from the West, and even down from Canada. Plus, we still had the lake effect snow. That's a good thing."

Though the calendar has officially passed the first day of Spring (March 21), the real melt hasn't begun yet and Thieme estimated the snow pack on the ground now is double what it was at this time last year. All this could add up to a rise in lake levels of three inches or more in Lake Michigan and in both East and West bays. Plus, "like anything that benefits the big lakes, the inland lakes will see a little benefit as well," Thieme said. Thieme's Detroit office covers water issues throughout the whole state of Michigan, as well as parts of Wisconsin, Minnesota and Indiana.

The National Weather Service office in White Lake Township was more optimistic and estimated that water levels here could rise as much as 6 to 12 inches. Chris Gorence, general area manager of the Grand Beach and Sugar Beach hotels, said that's the figure he's heard as well.

"Anytime the water levels rise from where we are right now, that's going to have a positive effect," Gorence said. "Besides the snowfall, I think one of the biggest issues is the Bay freezing over. It stops evaporation and the ice acts as a natural bulldozer. I'm hoping it's going to work this year to get rid of the sand bars."

Gorence said there needs to be four and a half feet of water to moor a boat directly onto a dock and not up on a hoist; in recent years that has meant installing a pretty long dock.

Bree Manley, manager of Windjammer Resort on Spider Lake, has battled sand bars, too. The Windjammer has seven cabins, a swim raft and offers pontoon boat rental. Low water levels last year meant that certain passages around the big sand bar in Spider Lake were impassible.

"As an inland lake, we don't go as low as the big lakes and we don't go as high, either, but we are affected," she said. "That sandbar can be a fun place to anchor and swim, or it can just be an obstacle."

Higher predicted water levels are also good, if not necessarily great, news for places like Peninsula Township on Old Mission Peninsula where residents and businesses value beachfront, says Township Planner Gordon Hayward. Low water levels might make for bigger beaches, but the issue isn't that simple, says Hayward. First, the area has a high turnover and new residents want to build close to the water. A view that can be skewed by near record lows in recent years. Second, quality of beach is as important, if not more so, than quantity and low water can mean marsh instead of sand. And third, increasing footage of exposed bottomland brings into question the recent Michigan Supreme Court Decision regarding who can and cannot walk beachfront property.

Hayward has been Peninsula Township's planner for 20 years; he's lived in the area for 70. The highest watermark he's measured was in 1986, the lowest just this past summer. "I've seen the all-time high and I've seen the all-time low," Hayward said. "Staying within a good range of highs and lows is the best scenario and it looks like we're headed back in that direction. That's a positive thing for property owners and for businesses here."

Like most things, moderation is best, he said. Too high, and wind and erosion become a big problem. Too low, and recreation is adversely affected. BN