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Great Lakes Rising Again; Levels Close to Normal: Summer Surprise Comes After Heavy Rains, Snow

August 4, 2008

By Tina Lam, Detroit Free Press

Aug. 4–After a parched summer last year that left docks stranded and boat propellers scraping sandy shallows, the Great Lakes are blissfully — and surprisingly — full again this year.

Heavy snow and rains since last winter have made the lakes rise. Scientists aren’t sure whether this will last, but they’re hopeful. The temperatures, moisture and ice cover next winter will be critical.

“If we get two more good, normal winters with normal precipitation, then we’d have a turnaround,” said Cynthia Sellinger, deputy director of the Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory in Ann Arbor, part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Lake Superior, which beat its 1926 record low last fall, rebounded to within 4 inches of its long-term average in July. Lakes Erie and Ontario are 2 and 4 inches, respectively, above their July averages.

Lakes Michigan and Huron are up 8 inches, though still lagging more than a foot below their normal July levels. Lake St. Clair is up 10 inches from last year and down just 2 inches from its normal for July.

A wetter-than-normal year

After three years of below-average precipitation, all the lakes had higher-than-normal precipitation during the past 12 months, Sellinger said. Last September, the Great Lakes region got double its normal rainfall for that month, lifting Lake Superior from its record lows.

By March, meteorologists across the region said the winter had brought record snowfall that was heavy and dense with water. Grand Rapids, Flint and Saginaw had their snowiest Februarys ever, and Wellston, near Manistee, set a new record for its winter season.

From December 2007 through February, the traditional winter months, for example, Grand Rapids got 98 inches of snow, 36 inches more than normal. Sault Ste. Marie also got 98 inches, 8 inches above its usual levels. Even Detroit got 59 inches of snow during those months — 22 inches above average.

Near the lakes, the snow was not the fluffy, low-moisture kind sucked up from the lakes by cold, dry air and dumped back on the ground. Instead, the wet snow came from storms outside the basin, adding to the lakes’ depths.

That was followed by heavy rains in spring and early summer across the region. In the past 12 months, each lake’s basin got 2 to 7 inches more rain than the long-term average, in 1900-99. Basin-wide, the average was 4 inches more than normal for the past year through July.

Inland lakes are higher than last summer, too, because of increased rainfall, said Bill Deedler, meteorologist for the National Weather Service in White Lake Township.

For example, the northern suburbs in Oakland County and counties near the Ohio border, which have been particularly wet, already have averaged 10-13 inches of rain, when the norm for the entire summer would be 10 inches, he said. But Deedler said a drying pattern is beginning to take hold, with higher than normal temperatures forecast through fall.

Said Sellinger, “We’ve had above-normal precipitation on the lakes, but the question is whether that’s going to continue.”

Problems persist

Boaters and beachgoers are happy about higher lakes, but the problems aren’t over.

Ships on the Great Lakes that carry coal, iron ore and cement for industry moved slightly more cargo in June than they did a year ago, but they’re still loading light because some harbors still are too shallow, according to the Lake Carriers’ Association in Cleveland.

Despite 16 inches more water in Lake Superior last week compared with a year ago, the Wenonah ferry from Grand Portage, Minn., to Isle Royale National Park still is not running. Last summer was the first in 30 years the 149-passenger boat couldn’t get to the island.

“We’re still hoping to get into the water this season,” said John Szczech, chief financial officer for the ferry.

The water still is too shallow at Grand Portage to ensure the ferry won’t hit the bottom in a swell, he said, but he’s hoping the boat can get out of the harbor this month on flat-water days.

‘Every inch counts’

At his cottage on Saginaw Bay, the water is clearly higher, said Dave Lampe, owner of a plumbing company in Detroit.

“It has come back,” he said. “To me, it seems about a foot higher.”

He lives on a shallow bay, and last summer, he could walk out half a mile and still hit water only knee-deep. This year, the water is deeper much closer to shore, making it easier to sail his small boat.

“Every inch counts,” he said.

At the G. Marsten Dame Marina in Northport on Lake Michigan, waterlines on the break wall are higher.

“Absolutely we’ve noticed,” said Martha Cook, assistant harbormaster.

Boaters are finding it easier to get in and out of their docks, and beaches are not as enormous as last year, she said. Some docks were so stranded last summer, sitting over land rather than water, that owners couldn’t use them. This year, it’s better, she said.

But near Harbor Beach on Lake Huron, Pat Tessmer said the beach at her cottage doesn’t look that different.

“If they say it’s up 8-10 inches, I’ll argue with them,” she said. “I still can’t see the lake,” which is obscured by tall weeds growing up from the sand.

The lakes normally rise May-October and fall November-April.

The Army Corps of Engineers forecasts that by December, Lakes Superior, Michigan, Huron and St. Clair will remain on the dry side, 4 to 14 inches lower than their long-term averages, but the two lower lakes, Ontario and Erie, will be wetter and close to their longtime normal levels.

Beyond that is anybody’s guess.

Contact TINA LAM at 313-222-6421 or tlam@freepress.com.

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