June 5, 2014 at 1:31 pm

Great Lakes levels finally spring back

Higher waters, generated by the harsh winter and rainy spring, are a boost to shipping in the region. (Steve Perez / The Detroit News)

Water levels on the Great Lakes, which have been below their historic averages for more than a decade, have come back dramatically in the past 18 months.

As the summer season begins in earnest, three of the lakes — Superior, St. Clair, Erie and Ontario — as well as Lake St. Clair are at or above their long-term averages; only Michigan and Huron remain below that mark, according to a report released Wednesday by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The higher waters, generated by the harsh winter and rainy spring, are a boost to shipping and recreation in the region. And they’ve been a long time coming.

“Lake Superior’s mean average for the month of May was five inches above the long-term average,” said Keith Kompoltowicz, chief of watershed hydrology for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. “April of 1998 was the last time that happened.”

Each lake registered a double-digit increase in inches for its water level in May compared with the year before:

■Lake Superior was 601.94 feet — more than 14 inches above May 2013 and 5 inches above the long-term average for the month.

■Lakes Michigan and Huron were 578.31 feet — 13.3 inches above last year and about 8 inches below the long-term average.

■Lake St. Clair was 574.57 feet — more than 11 inches above last year and practically right on the long-term average.

■Lake Erie was 572.01 — about 10 inches above last year and 2 inches above the long-term average.

■Lake Ontario was 246.56 feet — a little more than 10 inches above last year and 5 inches above the long-term average.

The owners of Rose Harbor Marina in Monroe have seen the difference, after being careful during the past two years about which boats they would rent space to. Dropping water levels in recent years combined with windy days meant turning away customers.

“This year, as much as I hated the winter, I really do appreciate the fact the lake levels have come up,” said Rose Harbor Marina co-owner Angela Button. “We don’t appear to be having the same issues we’ve had in the past.”

Low water levels have hurt the shipping industry in recent years, forcing freighters to lighten their payloads to reach shallower ports. Rising waters, while a definite help, have not completely solved the problem.

Each year, industry officials have pushed for dredging to be given a higher priority in federal spending policy. They and members of Michigan’s congressional delegation have been fighting to stop the practice of using the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund for projects other than dredging.

Glen Nekvasil, vice president of the Ohio-based Lake Carriers Association, said freighters are carrying bigger loads this year, “but we’re still not back up to full loads.

“It’s important we understand that the dredging issue remains the driving force for the long-term future of the Great Lakes,” he said. “Mother Nature is not going to bail us out of this.”

Some dredging relief appears to be on the horizon.

Under legislation approved by Congress in May, the Great Lakes would receive dedicated Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund money because they are now defined as a “unified system” of water. About 10 percent of the trust funds in excess of 2012 levels would be set aside for Great Lakes harbor projects and help reduce the dredging backlog.

The legislation is awaiting the signature of President Barack Obama.

The ice hung around much longer in Lake Superior that normal this spring — creating a unique experience for those who started the kayaking season on time.

Normally at this time of year, the guides at Uncle Ducky Outdoors’ Paddling Michigan focus on showing guests Pictured Rocks near Grand Marais.

“It’s been something for our guests to see the Pictured Rocks on one side and all of the ice on the other side,” said owner Bill Duckwall. “They’ve been getting a lot for their money.”

The ice has almost disappeared, but cold surface temperatures have remained throughout the lakes, making many think twice about taking that first dip of the summer.

At the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory in Ann Arbor, researchers track surface temperatures around the region. As of June 1, only Lake Erie was warmer than its long-term average.

George Leshkevich, a physical scientist at the NOAA lab, said a string of warm days could bring things back into line.

“Those surface temperatures are very susceptible to solar input,” he said. “They can change very quickly.”

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