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Despite flooding, Lake Michigan still near record low levels

Given the torrential rains and widespread flooding we’ve had this spring it’s hard to believe that Lake Michigan is still at near record low levels.

The lake is up from the record low set in January. But one rain can’t erase 14 years of lake drops.

Chicago pulls more than two billion gallons of water a day from Lake Michigan. Yet that has virtually no impact on lake level. How high or low the lake is means everything to the quality of life for Chicagoans and all lakeside communities.

There are a thousand boat slips in the harbor at New Buffalo, Michigan with a population of less than 2,000. Boaters are big business here and in Michigan’s 80 other harbor communities.

Jim Oselka’s family has been in the marina business for 57 years. He’s the third generation of Oselkas to live, work, and play in New Buffalo.

“Without the harbor and the beach and the lake, it just wouldn’t be what it is. It’s a getaway for Chicagoans and people from northern Indiana,” Oselka said.

Water marks show just how far the lake is down. New Buffalo had to build a new metal seawall to support the old concrete one. Their beach grows with each lake drop. And this breakwater is sinking.

It has sunk about 2 feet from where it originally was put in,” said Ryan Fellows, Assistant City Manager in New Buffalo. “And you can see how much of a difference with the beach being built up on this edge. And it pushes the sand over the top of it right here…then you end up with the sand going into the harbor mouth making a need to dredge.”

Dredging started this week in New Buffalo thanks to some emergency government funding. And New Buffalo assures boaters the harbor will be open for business.

The Army Corps of Engineers measures lake levels, and geologically, Lake Michigan and Lake Huron are considered one body of water. The corps projected the lakes would hit record lows in January and they did.

But we’ve seen double the rain this spring we normally receive, causing a seasonal rise faster and more substantially than projected.

”The levels that we’re forecasting out through August still keep the lake about 2 feet or even a few inches more than 2 feet below their long term average,” said Keith Kompoltowicz, Chief of Watershed Hydrology, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. “It’s gonna take several seasons of snowy winters followed by spring rainfall to get the lakes to close in on their average.”

Kompoltowicz says Lakes Michigan and Huron have been below long term average water levels since January of 1999. And, it’s currently in its longest period of below average water levels in history.

“I’m concerned that more extreme fluctuations in lake levels are going to cost both the economy and ecology of the Great Lakes,” said Joel Brammier with the Alliance for the Great Lakes. “When we see increased water temps, less ice cover and more evaporation, that’s because we’re having an impact on our climate. And we’ve got to make changes both to adapt to the situation we’re in and to start dialing back the effects of climate change or else we’re going to continue to see more and more extremes here in the Great Lakes.”

Historically, the reversal of the Chicago River over 100 years ago caused a one-time drop in the level of Lake Michigan by 1 to 2 inches.

And the St. Clair River dredging project in the 60s, which connected the upper and lower Great Lakes, allowed countless gallons of water to move into the Atlantic Ocean through the St. Lawrence Seaway.

It expanded global trade; but, that project caused a one-time permanent drop in lake levels of between 12 to 18 inches. Some groups are calling for restoration projects to try to recapture some of that water.

In the meantime, low lake levels are costing the shipping community on the Great Lakes an estimated $40 million a year.

“What it does to them they have to carry less cargo,” said Roy Deda, with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. “They have to carry what’s called light loading, they have to carry less than the ships could hold if the lake levels were higher. “

While the Army Corps of Engineers remains focused on commercial navigation harbors, harbor communities like New Buffalo are preparing for another great boating season.

“Well, you gotta be cautious. You got to watch your gauges and your depth finder make sure you know where you’re going. But you’ll be alright,” Ferraro said.

“It’s been coming up and all the rain we’ve gotten this spring has definitely helped. And I think the snowmelt from up north will help… so we’re looking forward to a good season,” Oselka said.

There’s no way to predict exactly when the lake level will rebound and there’s no question it won’t happen overnight. But lake levels tend to be cyclical. Remember back in the 60s? We hit record lows, followed by record highs in the mid-80s.

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