Water levels for Lake Michigan and linked waterways are expected to be down 8-10 inches and hover only about 10 inches from historic lows recorded in 1964.
Recreational boating is expected to bear the brunt of the impact of low lake levels. In many cases, marina owners have to worry about dredging slips or making dock adjustments so boaters can access vessels that sit lower in the water.
Levels around the Great Lakes fluctuate each year and generally in long cycles, but U.S. Army Corps of Engineers analysts say lower-than-average snowfall and precipitation in recent months and a lack of Lake Michigan winter ice cover have contributed to this year’s decrease.
Jia Wang, an ice climatologist with the Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory in Ann Arbor, said ice cover on Lake Michigan can have a noticeable impact on the lake’s level.
“With low ice coverage, winter evaporation is very high,” he said. “The water evaporates into the air.”
Wang said good ice coverage in 2008 and 2009 helped lake levels recover some from near-historic lows in 2007, but the level started going back down after that.
For beachgoers, the drop isn’t a bad thing. Every inch rise in lake levels equates to 10 inches of lost beach, according to government data.
But boaters might have to worry.
Chris Schropp, a civil engineer with the Army Corps office in Grand Haven, said low water levels may cause hardship for some recreational harbors such as Saugatuck and Pentwater because federal funding for dredging those ports has dried up.
“The Corps will not be dredging those harbors. They are kind of left up to their own to find a way to do it,” he said.
Falling water levels are nothing new to the Great Lakes, according to Keith Kompoltowicz, a meteorologist in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Detroit District Office.
Since the late 1990s, Lake Michigan has undergone its second-longest stretch of continuously below average levels since the Army Corps began collecting data in the mid-1800s.
Lake Michigan surged to a near record high in May 1997, when it was 9 inches below the all-time record high of 582.3 feet recorded in October 1986, 4.8 feet above the average surface level.
After that, it started dropping.
Lower levels also are a concern for freighters that ply the Great Lakes.
Glen Nekvasil, spokesman for the Lake Carriers’ Association, said every inch of water lost equates to a diminished carrying capacity of anywhere from 50 tons to 270 tons.