Great Lakes water levels reaching new record lows

Pentwater, Mich. — It’s official: The water level for lakes Michigan and Huron has hit an all-time low.

The running monthly mean water level for January dipped to 576.04 feet above sea level on Jan. 21, and it isn’t expected to come up much anytime soon.

The new low water level beats the previous record low of 576.05 for the combined lake basin, set in March 1964. The decline is highlighting concerns about exposed seaway infrastructure in harbors around the state, as well as issues with certain fish species and navigation problems for boaters.

“It’s looking like this could be the all-time record low monthly mean for all months,” Keith Kompoltowicz, chief of watershed hydrology for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, told Michigan Outdoor News. “It looks like we will remain very near record lows as we head into the spring and summer.”

Michigan Sea Grant Educator Mark Breederland said that reality is increasing concerns about potential structural failures at lake ports all along the shoreline. Seawalls erected decades ago are exposed to the elements. Infrastructure at small harbors like the Portage Lake inlet north of Manistee are especially bad, Breederland said, and local officials are scrambling for solutions.

“This is going to be a tough year, but the reality is 2014 is going to be a tough year, too,” Breederland told charter fishermen, biologists, and others who recently attended a Sea Grant fisheries workshop in Pentwater. “We could have some potentially catastrophic failures. It was a dredging crisis, now it’s an infrastructure crisis.”

The structural issues are compounding existing dredging problems at most harbors in the Michigan-Huron basin. Commercial ships already must light-load in many places, increasing the cost to transport goods. Commercial, charter, and sport fishermen also are bracing for even more problems launching and navigating because of the low water levels. In places like Traverse City’s west Grand Traverse Bay, marinas are losing slips by the dozens, Breederland said.

Municipalities, including Frankfort, Arcadia, Pentwater, Leeland, and most other shallow-water harbor areas, have struggled with shoaling and infrastructure problems on their own in recent years because of a general lack of federal funds, Breederland said, and the low water levels are only expected to make matters worse.

Dave Wright, chief of operations for the Corps’ Detroit district, said federal officials conducted an operational assessment and rated federal harbors with A through F grades two years ago. The agency is now meeting with locals to “make sure our stakeholders in communities know about that, and that we’re not getting any federal money” to address the problems, he said.

“We’ve known all along our coastal structures are well beyond their 50-year design life,” Wright said. “Water levels are just adding to the problem now.”

Wright said that dredging is the most immediate need, but it’s obvious there are bigger issues looming.

“Some of our structures … were built in the early 1900s, so we’re creeping up on 100 years on some of the older ones,” he said.

Federal dollars for dredging and repairs are prioritized to commercial harbors first, Wright said, and shallow-water ports generally haven’t received any funding in recent years.

He said he doesn’t expect that to change.

“We still don’t have a formal budget, so we’re going off of the president’s budget, which includes some money for dredging,” Wright said. Most of Michigan’s harbors, however, won’t make the cut, he added. “Even the lower-use commercial harbors don’t get much funding anymore.”

Michigan DNR Fisheries Chief Jim Dexter said the record-low lake levels could also take a toll on some fish species in certain areas. The Betsie River mouth, for example, was closed to fishing during the salmon run this fall when hundreds of fish died because of low water and warm weather that left them vulnerable.

“It’s still closed because we made the assessment things will likely get worse before they improve,” Dexter said, adding that the closure will continue at least through the spring steelhead run. “We potentially have that same issue on the Little Manistee.”

Dexter expects low water levels to cause the biggest problems for migrating fish, as well as larger shallow-water species like pike that live in drowned river mouth areas, such as Bay de Noc, Saginaw Bay, Green Bay, and other shallower areas where vegetation could dry up.

Breederland said a wide variety of factors contribute to the decreasing lake levels, including outflows near Chicago and Detroit, evaporation, natural climate cycles, and other factors.

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