Forecast: Great Lakes’ water levels keep rising

Leonard N. Fleming
The Detroit News

The Great Lakes are expected to rise again this spring for the fifth straight year with all five lakes expected to have above-average levels after hitting bottom at record-low levels in 2013.

The recovery is especially strong in Lake Superior, which forecasters estimate will break a record high level set in the mid-1980s, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. It recently released its extended forecast for January through June for lakes Erie, Ontario and Michigan-Huron, and for St. Clair, which isn’t considered a Great Lake.

“We’re above average in all of the Great Lakes,” said Lauren Fry, a hydraulic engineer and forecaster for the Corps’ Detroit office. “So Lake Superior is one we’re keeping an eye on. The December levels were about four inches below the record high level.”

The forecast is good news for boaters and the shipping industry, which lobbied for more dredging of harbors and shallow waterways during the lower lake levels earlier in the decade. In addition, property owners can enjoy more traditional shorelines.

The rising lake levels during the past few years has allowed commercial vessels to carry more cargo and recreational boats to better navigate marinas. While lake levels typically dip during the winter, all of the lakes remained above their December long-term average water levels, according to the Army Corps of Engineers.

“The issue of boating safely, and knowing what we call the rules of the road, is that you don’t want the bottom of your boat to hit things and damage your props and get stuck in and things like that,” said Joe Tatham, a two-time past president of the Detroit Power Squadron, a group dedicated to educating people on water safety and other issues. “The more water you have under your hulls, the safer it is to travel around.”

Five years ago, lower-than-normal lake levels helped trigger a $21 million state emergency dredging program for 58 harbors in Michigan.

Four of the Great Lakes have water levels well above average but Lake Ontario is forecast to be “closer to average for the end of the period” that ends in June, Fry said.

Lake Superior levels could “attain or even surpass record high levels by May or June, she said, but “that’s a pretty small chance in our forecast.”

By June, the Army Corps estimates that Lake St. Clair’s level will rise from just more than three feet above average this month to between four and five feet in the summer. Lake Michigan-Huron will fall just short of four feet above average in June if estimates hold, officials say.

The Corps works with Environment and Climate Change Canada to produce the six-month forecast of the Great Lakes water averages.

But a down side to rising lake levels is the increased risk in some areas of erosion along the lakes’ shorelines. The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality tracks high risk erosion areas, which typically erode at an average rate of one foot or more annually during at least 15 years.

“They should be prepared for additional issues if we continue to see these higher water levels,” Fry said.

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