Snow-covered boats are seen in St. Clair Shores on Monday. (David Coates / The Detroit News)
Subzero temperatures plus record snowfall in parts of Michigan and above-average amounts in Great Lakes states are expected to solidify last year’s gains in lake levels and, in some cases, help them rise closer to normal levels.
Lakes Superior, Michigan and Huron will be a few inches higher by late July compared with the same time in 2013, according to projections the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers released Monday.
By contrast, Lake St. Clair will be at or just below last year’s levels at the start of summer, and lakes Erie and Ontario will be below last year’s levels, the federal agency estimates.
The forecast represents a mixed bag for the lakes since last year, but still puts them in a far better position than they were in 2012. Each lake is expected to be well above the level of two years ago — and, in many cases, within two to three inches of the historical mean or average for July.
The news is particularly good for lakes Superior, Michigan and Huron, which prior to 2012 had experienced 14 straight years of below-average levels. That stretch culminated in Michigan and Huron setting all-time monthly lows.
The below-average lake levels in recent years have frustrated those who live near the lakes, play in them and ship goods on them. Lakefront property owners watched for years as beaches widened as waters receded, while shipping companies were forced to reduce the amount of cargo on their freighters to ensure passage in shallow ports.
Russell Duzba has worked to keep the harbor in Leland open in recent years as the waters of Lake Michigan have receded to well below their long-term averages and money for dredging has dried up.
This year, the Leland harbor master said he is anticipating the seasonal run-off from the spring’s thawing of the ice and snow accumulations will boost the lake’s water levels.
But this alone won’t be enough to ensure a successful boating season, Duzba said
“If we’re not dredged early this year, people will go elsewhere,” he said.
“If there’s even a chance people will scrape the bottom, they’ll pass us by.”
So Duzba and other Leland officials are lobbying state lawmakers for money to dredge the harbor. Rough storms in early fall helped generate the kind of silt buildup that could exacerbate the situation.
“I’m banking on the seasonal rise helping, but we still need the dredging,” Duzba said.
Seasonal rises in the lakes would be welcomed by the shipping industry after weather problems and ice buildup on the lakes late in 2013 resulted in delays and canceled cargo shipments, which in turn helped drive a downturn in business. In 2013, iron ore shipments dropped 21 percent from the previous year, according to one industry group.
“We really took it on the chin,” said Glen Nekvasil, vice president of the Ohio-based Lake Carriers’ Association.
“... I guess maybe we’d all gotten spoiled, and now we realize what Mother Nature can throw at us.
“We’ll all need to do some serious thinking about how we deal with these things in the future.”
January statistics compiled by the Army Corps indicate how severe this winter has been to date:
■Lake Superior’s mean was 601.35 feet, up from 600.33 feet the year before.
■Lakes Michigan and Huron posted a mean of 577.3 feet, up from 576.02 feet the year before.
■Lake St. Clair reached 573.13 feet last month, compared with 572.57 feet last year.
■Lake Erie’s 570.87 feet last month was up from 570.28 feet in 2013.
■Lake Ontario posted a mean of 244.88 feet compared with 244.08 feet the year before.
The improvement in lake levels could change in the coming months depending on the weather, an Army Corps official said.
“The difference between the 2012 and 2013 seasonal rises was like night and day,” said Jim Lewis, a hydraulic engineer with the Army Corps.
“A lot could happen between now and then (July) in 2014 depending on how much more precipitation we see or if snow keeps piling up over the next month or two.”