June 28, 2012 at 1:00 am

Shallow waters become challenge to navigation

Residents use portable lifts like this one on Lake Huron to move their boats based on lake levels. (Todd McInturf / The Detroit News)

If you were paying attention to weather patterns over last winter and this spring, you could have predicted this. Well, part of it.

Michigan residents understand that winters with little snow and springs with little rain add up to low lake levels during the months they most enjoy the water. And that is exactly what people are seeing around the Great Lakes this summer.

Boaters especially have to pay attention to avoid running aground in the shallower than normal waters.

"We're below average pretty much across the board," said Keith Kompoltowicz, a meteorologist with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

"With that lack of snow, we really didn't see the amount of runoff that we normally do."

And compared with last year, when the lakes benefited from a snowy winter and rainy spring, things seem downright dismal to some. Based on Tuesday's measurements:

Lake Michigan/Huron is 5 inches below last year's average.

Lake St. Clair is down 9 inches.

Lake Erie is down 13 inches.

Lake Ontario is down 15 inches.

Only Lake Superior escaped the low-level trend. After last week's heavy rainfall, Superior is 4 inches above last year's average.

At 60, Nick DiSalvio has been sailing for a long time. You'll find him out on the waters of Lake St. Clair three times a week in the summer, and he's become very familiar with the lake's ebb and flow.

This year, he said he's relying on his instruments over his instincts more often than usual.

"I'm more attuned to depth this year than any other year before," he said.

DiSalvio owns a 33-foot C&C yacht built over three decades ago. It has a 6-foot draft and, these days, that's cutting it close in plenty of areas he never had to worry about before, he said.

He sails out of Markley Marine in Harrison Township toward Lake St. Clair and heads straight to the deeper water.

What he isn't sure of is what's coming later in the season. Lake levels typically rise a bit from February to July, then dip during the second half of the year.

"For water levels to be down about a foot right now, that's significant," he said. "But in the fall, when we're losing another foot like we always do, the marinas may not be able to get the boats out as easily."

Clinton Township resident Robert Hader purchased a lot along Cherry Lane in Harrison Township in 1980 to get access to the water. The canal that runs along the back of his property leads straight out to Lake St. Clair.

There was a time, he said, soon after he acquired the lot, when waters reached up onto the property and into the garage during a flood.

These days, that's hardly a concern.

"We noticed it right away this spring," said the 73-year-old attorney. "The water had come down quite a bit. We can't afford to lose a foot of water in that canal because it's shallow in the first place."

Hader's boat is a 33-footer that typically has a draft of 3 feet. In some years, that's not a problem. In 2012, he figures he's about 6 inches from the bottom of his canal.

"I may wind up having to move my boat out of there to someplace else where the depth isn't an issue," he said.

Safety concerns

Within the bays and harbors of Lake Michigan, this summer's water levels have been more of a nuisance than a major problem.

At Petoskey's shallow-draft marina near downtown, the mostly recreational boats that come in and out don't threaten to hit the bottom.

"The lake level is down for sure, maybe 6 inches or so, and we definitely have to take more care with where we put our boats," said Chris Flynn, a harbor specialist. "Day in and day out, we're doing OK."

The only real problem is a concern over safety, he said. With a fixed system, where posts are rooted into the bed of the harbor, Petoskey's docks stay the same height even as the water drops away from them.

For the smaller boats, that means getting in and out and loading are a bit trickier than usual.

But several miles down the Lake Michigan coast, there are no such concerns at the state's Duncan L. Smith Marina.

"It's not real critical for us," said Barry Smith, the marina's harbormaster. "It's not drastic enough where we're having to turn away any boats."

The largest boats on the Great Lakes, however, have not escaped unscathed. Lower waters mean freighters moving goods about the region have to lighten their loads to account for less depth.

"Ships that should be loading 70,000 to 71,000 tons of cargo are now loading only 64,000 to 65,000 tons," said Glen Nekvasil, spokesman for the Great Lakes Carriers Association. "Depending on the size of the ship, every inch costs between 50 and 270 tons."

A downward trend

It's been a long time, maybe eight years, since water touched the dock behind Bob Bryson's home.

When he moved to Harrison Township in 1987, the easy access to Lake St. Clair was the selling point.

Now, the boat that used to sit docked just 90 yards from his back door is moored miles away along the Clinton River.

For many years, he's resigned himself to believing the lake was simply in the midst of a low cycle — that it would start to bounce back at any time.

Now, he said, he's not as confident.

"I used to believe the lake was on a 20-year cycle," said the 64-year-old retiree. "But up north, they're not getting the same snow they're used to. The snow pattern seems to have changed and I just don't see it coming back any time soon."

Some meteorologists said they have a hard time predicting if the lakes are in the midst of a cycle, or if so, when that cycle might break.

"It just speaks to the high level of variability in the system," said Kompoltowicz, the Army Corps meteorologist.

"Our recording of the water levels only goes back to 1918. It's hard to determine, based on 100 years of data, that there's a 20-year cycle in effect or even a 10-year cycle."

A return to historic levels would require a consistent weather patterns — several years of high-snow winters and heavy-rain springs, Kompoltowicz added.

"It just takes time," he said.


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Nick DiSalvio, a regular boater on Lake St. Clair, said hes relying on ... (David Coates / The Detroit News)