Lake Michigan Water Levels Near Record Lows

Posted at 4:54 PM, Dec 04, 2012
and last updated 2012-12-04 18:13:59-05

WEST MICHIGAN – After a very mild, reasonably dry winter last year, followed by drought this summer, and more recently a nearly dry November, all continue to take their toll on the Great Lakes. Lake Michigan in particular (our closest friend and neighbor) is within two inches of a record low-level for the month of  December. The current Lake Michigan level is at/around 576.2 feet above sea level. Water levels have been dropping since the 1990’s across the Great Lakes. The Army Corps of Engineers say Lake Michigan water levels may fall to record lows over the winter unless heavy rains and/or large snowfalls blanket the region.

Experts blame much of the falling water levels on lean winter snowfalls, but the problem is a little deeper. Reduced rainfall over the years has also exacerbated the issue. Remember, Lake Michigan is a large catch basin for creeks, streams, rivers, and tributaries dumping into it from several states. On average, there has been less precipitation falling and subsequently less water filling the lakes. One of the other issues are the warmer water temperatures of the lakes themselves. With higher surface temperatures, more lake water is evaporated. That evaporation is obviously increased if the air, soil, and vegetation are dry from a lack of precipitation and drought.

Take a look at these numbers across the Great Lakes. Lake Michigan and Lake Huron are considered one body of water for the purpose of levels and water height. That said, both are 16″ lower than last year at this time. Lake Superior is 2″ lower, Lake St. Clair (a smaller lake by Detroit) is 26″ lower, Lake Erie 21″ lower, and Lake Ontario 13″ lower. Over the next month both Superior and Michigan-Huron are expected to drop another 3″ from current levels. That would place Michigan-Huron at record low levels for the month of December. The previous record was set back in 1948 at 576.18 feet above sea level. The Army Corps of Engineers and hydrologists are already expecting new record low levels to be set for Michigan-Huron in January, February, and March. The record lows for those months are 576.12 feet January 1965, 576.08 feet in February 1964, and 576.05 feet in March 1964. Records have generally been kept from 1918 to the present. As a comparison, the highest monthly average occurred in October 1986 at 582.35 feet above sea level for Lake Michigan.

Needless to say this kind of change in water levels (especially if it continues) has the potential to negatively affect cargo shipping, boating, recreation, and even property values. The city of South Haven is actually considering dredging the marina and some areas on the Black River at a  reported cost of about $150,000. Several boats have reportedly touched bottom in recent months. They hope to have the project completed before the spring rush of boats go back into the water.

So how dry has it been? Take a look at the U.S. Drought Monitor…almost every one of our 50 states is currently under some type of drought. Michigan is no exception. Although not severe, parts of lower Michigan are considered “abnormally dry”. Click herefor more information on all the Great Lakes and their levels.

The Great Lakes account for 20 percent of the world’s fresh water supply, and 84 percent of the fresh water supply here in North America.