Low lake levels constant concern

Lake Huron water levels will remain below their long-term average even as they begin their seasonal increase, according to United States Army Corps of Engineers experts.

After hitting record low levels in January, lakes Michigan and Huron water levels have risen about two inches, Keith Kompoltowicz, chief of watershed hydrology branch, said. He was one of four Corps of Engineers experts to discuss lake levels, their economic impact and what they’re forecasted to be over the next six months in a conference call held Wednesday.

Forecasts calling for continuing low lake levels comes as more bad news for shipping communities, especially those on lakes Michigan and Huron, John Allis, Great Lakes office of hydraulics and hydrology chief, said. Forecasts put water levels for the two interconnected lakes at six to 13 inches below low water datum, a sort of benchmark used in measuring lake levels. Their highest level, forecast for the end of July, will be lower than last year’s highest levels.

“By September, they’ll be two to five inches below what it was a year ago,” he said.

Water levels are so low in two commercial harbors that they’ve been effectively shut down, Dave Wright, chief of operations and maintenance said. At St. Joseph and Waukegan, Ill., commercial vessels can no longer get into these harbors. Elsewhere, lake levels are expected to continue freighters to carry less than a full load.

The lower St. Mary’s River is a major concern right now, Kompoltowicz said. This is because its water levels are affected by Lake Huron.

The Corps of Engineers expects to get funding for 15 commercial harbors, and received funding for eight other harbors as part of the Hurricane Sandy emergency relief bill, Wright said. Of those eight, five are shallow-draft, recreational harbors.

There still will be a considerable backlog of dredging to do, as 36 out of 60 commercial harbors and 46 out of 80 recreational harbors are in need of dredging, Wright said. Budgetary constraints prevents the Corps of Engineers from adequately addressing the problem.

While forecasts call for a wetter-than-average spring in the Great Lakes basin, and unmelted snow could bring more water into the lakes, it’ll take more than one snowy winter and rainy spring to make a difference, Kompoltowicz said.

“It takes several seasons of conditions conducive to water level rises to get back to average levels, especially on lakes Michigan and Huron,” he said.

While the Corps of Engineers forecasts lake levels out six months in advance, it also attempts to predict longer-term trends, Kompoltowicz said. Some predictions call for continued low lake levels, maybe even lower than they are today, while others show lake levels returning to their long-term average if wet conditions persist.

Jordan Travis can be reached via email at jtravis@thealpenanews.com or by phone at 358-5688. Follow Jordan on Twitter @jt_alpenanews. Read his blog, A Snowball’s Chance, at www.thealpenanews.com.