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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.

Cover Story
12/04/12

Lake Michigan water level at record low

Even if you’re not a boater, or swimmer, or fisherman, what happens on Lake Michigan affects all of us who live anywhere near it.  It’s hard not to notice how far the water level has fallen.

Chief Meteorologist Tom Skilling has been looking into why that’s happening, and what it means for the Chicago area.

Chicago owes its existence to its location on the shores of Lake Michigan. It’s our recreation, transportation, and drinking water supply. And with the lake level within a couple of inches of breaking historic lows set in March of 1964, it’s causing all kinds of adjustments.  Phil Willink is a senior research biologist for the Shedd Aquarium.  “The lake level goes up and down and if you live along the lake you certainly notice that.”

The evidence is everywhere, boat ramps, lagoons, beaches.  Historic records who the level of Lake Michigan fluctuates about six feet.  It hit record lows in the mid 1960’s, followed by record highs in the mid 80’s. Willink says what happens over time is key. “ So what we have to do is look at long term trends which is a bit more complicated.  But what we are seeing recently is that it seems to be down a foot or two.   And based on predictions we’ll probably set new record lows in Lake Michigan sometime this fall or this winter.”

Willink says mild winters and lack of ice cover seem to be driving the lake drops.  That’s because ice acts as a blanket and prevents evaporation.  We asked Willink, what has to happen to turn this around?   “Basically we’re going to need more rain, more snow.   And if we have slightly cooler winters and more ice, that will help a lot right there. “   Marine officer Mark Flechsig points out fresh water lines in DuSable Harbor, causing some boats to bottom out.  “That’s probably gone down a foot so just in the past 12 months.” He’s worked on Lake Michigan since 1985 and has witnessed first hand the complications that come with both high and low lake levels.  He takes us to 12th Street Beach.  Breakwaters built of rock, concrete, and re-bar were submerged to protect the beach.  But they’ve become a hazard for unsuspecting boaters.  “ It keeps us more busy,” says Officer Flechsig.

wgntv-lake-michigan-near-record-low-20121203“People run aground there.  If they punch a hole in their hull- we gotta get out there quick and get ‘em off that boat try to salvage that boat if possible.”  A pier parallel to Navy Pier was completely submerged for years.  Now, four to five feet of it is exposed.  At North Avenue, the beach grows with every lake drop.  It’s great for sun worshipers.  But Flechsig says rescues are becoming more difficult. “If we have a situation where a swimmer is on the beach and they’re missing, it’s hard for our smaller boats to get in there.  If we have a land based job where we’re coming in the truck- where there’s maybe somebody missing-you know we have a lot more land to cover-harder to get vehicles across the sand and that kind of thing.”

But the costliest complication of falling lake levels may be the impact on commerce.  Less water means lighter loads.  In other words, more trips, more money.  Ana d lot of people are asking about the impact on fish and waterfowl that call the lake home.  “It’s is unlikely that fishes living several hundred feet below the surface will notice an impact.  It’s unlikely the fishes living right at the surface will notice an impact.  But what we are most concerned about are coastal habitats like wetlands.”  Willink says if wetlands dry out, fish and waterfowl lose spawning grounds, nurseries, and food sources.  Shedd Aquarium Vice President of External and Regulatory affairs Jim Robinett emphasizes the importance of water conservation.

“When I see people washing down a sidewalk with water as opposed to sweeping it it’s like that’s not a wise use of the water resources we have.  I think we take it for granted… see this huge body of water right here and say it’s limitless.  But it’s really not.  And on an individual basis times millions of people, we can make a difference.”  Willink says bottom line, when it comes to our beloved lakes, people are resistant to change. “Nature is change and it’s always changing.  The Great Lakes are used to creating beaches in one place and destroying them in another.

How can we let nature do it’s thing and yet still live comfortably alongside it?   The Mississippi river is having it’s share of low water level troubles too, prompting talk of restricting barge traffic from St. Louis to the Gulf of Mexico.

http://www.lre.usace.army.mil/greatlakes/hh/greatlakeswaterlevels/currentconditions/

http://www.glerl.noaa.gov/

http://www.sheddaquarium.org/

 Story by Tom Skilling, Chief Meteorologist / Pam Grimes, Producer / Mike D’Angelo, Photojournalist / Jordan Guzzardo and Mike D’Angelo Photojournalists

Even if you’re not a boater, or swimmer, or fisherman, what happens on Lake Michigan affects all of us who live anywhere near it.  It’s hard not to notice how far the water level has fallen.

Chief Meteorologist Tom Skilling has been looking into why that’s happening, and what it means for the Chicago area.

Chicago owes its existence to its location on the shores of Lake Michigan. It’s our recreation, transportation, and drinking water supply. And with the lake level within a couple of inches of breaking historic lows set in March of 1964, it’s causing all kinds of adjustments.  Phil Willink is a senior research biologist for the Shedd Aquarium.  “The lake level goes up and down and if you live along the lake you certainly notice that.”

The evidence is everywhere, boat ramps, lagoons, beaches.  Historic records who the level of Lake Michigan fluctuates about six feet.  It hit record lows in the mid 1960’s, followed by record highs in the mid 80’s. Willink says what happens over time is key. “ So what we have to do is look at long term trends which is a bit more complicated.  But what we are seeing recently is that it seems to be down a foot or two.   And based on predictions we’ll probably set new record lows in Lake Michigan sometime this fall or this winter.”

Willink says mild winters and lack of ice cover seem to be driving the lake drops.  That’s because ice acts as a blanket and prevents evaporation.  We asked Willink, what has to happen to turn this around?   “Basically we’re going to need more rain, more snow.   And if we have slightly cooler winters and more ice, that will help a lot right there. “   Marine officer Mark Flechsig points out fresh water lines in DuSable Harbor, causing some boats to bottom out.  “That’s probably gone down a foot so just in the past 12 months.” He’s worked on Lake Michigan since 1985 and has witnessed first hand the complications that come with both high and low lake levels.  He takes us to 12th Street Beach.  Breakwaters built of rock, concrete, and re-bar were submerged to protect the beach.  But they’ve become a hazard for unsuspecting boaters.  “ It keeps us more busy,” says Officer Flechsig.

“People run aground there.  If they punch a hole in their hull- we gotta get out there quick and get ‘em off that boat try to salvage that boat if possible.”  A pier parallel to Navy Pier was completely submerged for years.  Now, four to five feet of it is exposed.  At North Avenue, the beach grows with every lake drop.  It’s great for sun worshipers.  But Flechsig says rescues are becoming more difficult. “If we have a situation where a swimmer is on the beach and they’re missing, it’s hard for our smaller boats to get in there.  If we have a land based job where we’re coming in the truck- where there’s maybe somebody missing-you know we have a lot more land to cover-harder to get vehicles across the sand and that kind of thing.”

But the costliest complication of falling lake levels may be the impact on commerce.  Less water means lighter loads.  In other words, more trips, more money.  Ana d lot of people are asking about the impact on fish and waterfowl that call the lake home.  “It’s is unlikely that fishes living several hundred feet below the surface will notice an impact.  It’s unlikely the fishes living right at the surface will notice an impact.  But what we are most concerned about are coastal habitats like wetlands.”  Willink says if wetlands dry out, fish and waterfowl lose spawning grounds, nurseries, and food sources.  Shedd Aquarium Vice President of External and Regulatory affairs Jim Robinett emphaszes the importance of water conservation.

“When I see people washing down a sidewalk with water as opposed to sweeping it it’s like that’s not a wise use of the water resources we have.  I think we take it for granted… see this huge body of water right here and say it’s limitless.  But it’s really not.  And on an individual basis times millions of people, we can make a difference.”  Willink says bottom line, when it comes to our beloved lakes, people are resistant to change. “Nature is change and it’s always changing.  The Great Lakes are used to creating beaches in one place and destroying them in another.

How can we let nature do it’s thing and yet still live comfortably alongside it?   The Mississippi river is having it’s share of low water level troubles too, prompting talk of restricting barge traffic from St. Louis to the Gulf of Mexico.

http://www.lre.usace.army.mil/greatlakes/hh/greatlakeswaterlevels/currentconditions/

http://www.glerl.noaa.gov/

http://www.sheddaquarium.org/

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