Dry summer helps push Lake Michigan water levels to near-record lows


CHICAGO — As Lake Michigan water levels have dipped lower and lower this year, so too has shoreline fisherman Patrick Finley.

A leisurely stand, cast and reel routine will no longer do. Actually catching a fish in such shallow water calls for methods more extreme.

“You literally have to lie down to land a fish with the net,” said Finley, 30, who has been fishing the lake for about 20 years and works at Henry’s Sport & Bait in Bridgeport. “The water is extremely low — the worst I’ve ever seen.”

In fact, recent U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reports found that water levels on Lakes Michigan and Huron touched the all-time low for October one day last week and are likely to recede to record levels in the coming months due largely to this year’s dry winter and relentlessly arid summer.

As the water has ebbed, more than recreational fishers have taken note.

Submerged rocks, trees and debris have already surfaced — new fixtures along the widening shores. Lakers carrying weighty cargo, like coal, iron ore and limestone, have had to lighten loads to make it to harbor. And, for a few days this month, the Corps limited the use of the Chicago Harbor Lock to prevent river water from running back into the lowered lake.

Though the lows have been driven by this year’s weather, Lakes Michigan and Huron have drifted beneath their long-term average since the late 1990s, stoking worries that the largest group of freshwater lakes on Earth — containing a fifth of the world’s fresh water — will become a consistently diminishing resource in the coming decades.

“People are concerned and worried and rightly so,” said Tim Eder, executive director of the Great Lakes Commission. “What we are seeing could be connected to climate change. However it is also important to note that the Great Lakes have always fluctuated.”

Formed by retreating glaciers more than 10,000 years ago, the Great Lakes have been compared to “a series of interconnected bathtubs” that hold an estimated 6 quadrillion gallons of water, according to the Great Lakes Commission. Water from Lake Superior — the headwater of the system — runs down to Lakes Michigan and Huron before rushing into Lake Erie, over Niagara Falls into Lake Ontario and eventually the Atlantic Ocean.

Lakes Michigan and Huron, which hold about 2 quadrillion gallons of water, are mostly fed by precipitation and runoff. About 29 percent flows in from Lake Superior. On the flip side, about two-thirds of that water runs out to Lake Erie while about one third is lost to evaporation. Chicago, meanwhile, diverts about one percent of the water from Lake Michigan for its own uses.

That complex balance has led to large and hard to predict fluctuations in water levels.

Since modern records began in 1918, Lakes Michigan and Huron, which are considered one body of water connected by the Straits of Mackinac, reached an all-time low of 576.05 feet in March 1964 and an all-time high of 582.35 feet in October 1986, representing a sizable range of about 6 feet.

Though the lakes tend to follow yearly cycles, swelling in the spring and summer and shrinking in the fall and winter, sudden changes in weather can upend expectations.

Or, as Alliance for the Great Lakes President Joel Brammeier put it: “Knowing what to expect when it comes to lake levels is a really tricky business.”

That inherent uncertainty keeps the lake level forecasts from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to a six-month maximum.

Although one daily mean water level this month reached the record low for October, the Corps predicts that the overall monthly average will ultimately be about one inch above the record low.

After October, however, the forecast gets more dire, according to Keith Kompoltowicz, chief of watershed hydrology for the agency’s Detroit district.

“The very abnormal weather that we have seen across the Great Lakes going back to last winter has really put us in the position to possibly set new record lows,” Kompoltowicz said.

Jim Clark, general manager at the Chicago Yacht Club, said he’s not surprised, given the issues he has had to deal with this season.

In July, during the club’s Race to Mackinac, the water was so shallow in Lake Huron that all the boats couldn’t fit into the Mackinac Island municipal marina as they normally do, Clark said. During another event in September, the club also had to have the Chicago Park District clear debris from the western side of the docks to prevent boats from running aground.

Periodic winds out of the south, which have pushed water north, have worsened the situation for sail boats that require deeper water than other boats to accommodate keels that can reach 10 feet into the water, Clark said.

“Sail boats would be some of the first victims of low water because they have the deepest drafts,” Clark said. “So we are kind of the canaries in the coal mine as they say.”

This year, however, large lakers have also been missing the extra inches of water, according to Glen Nekvasil, vice president of the Lake Carriers’ Association. In order to make it into shallow harbors, the huge, cargo-carrying boats have had to reduce their loads, which ultimately means they must make more trips, Nekvasil said.

“The biggest ships a year ago were loading in the area of 66,000 tons,” Nekvasil said. “Now, a good cargo is about 64,000 to 65,000, so we are losing about 1,500 tons.”

Fluctuating highs and lows are generally seen as good for the Greats Lakes ecosystem and experts said there is no way to tell for sure what will happen in the coming years, pointing to the fact that all-time highs followed the all-time low of 1964.

“It all depends on conditions,” Kompoltowicz said. “We have seen times in the past decade of below-average water levels where we had significant spring rises.”

A study released in March by the International Joint Commission, a U.S.-Canadian group that oversees the lakes, underscored that unpredictability.

“Perhaps most striking from the perspective of effective lake regulation is how little the lake dynamics on an inter-annual and decadal timescales are understood,” the authors wrote. “Despite best efforts, the lake levels remain almost entirely unpredictable more than a month ahead.”

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Still, the report advised local and national governments to be prepared for water level declines in the long term, noting that lake evaporation is increasing and likely will increase for the foreseeable future, likely due to the lack of ice over, increasing surface water temperatures and wind speeds.

They also pointed to human actions that have contributed to declining lake levels, including heavy dredging over the last century of the St. Clair River, which is the main outflow of Lakes Michigan and Huron.

If the declines do continue below the normal six-foot range, Eder warned that other issues may arise, including warmer water temperatures that could affect fish and plant life and limit access to fresh water.

“Lower water levels are going to affect all users of the Great Lakes system and probably, mostly, in a negative way, except for those people who are going to enjoy broader beaches,” Eder said

For the moment, however, Finley said he isn’t about to rush out and buy a longer fishing rod. Instead, he said he is opting for a wait-and-see approach.

“Just keep your fingers crossed and hope for more rain next fishing season,” Finley said. “Maybe I’ll do a rain dance.”

(Chicago Tribune reporter Liam Ford contributed to this report.)