What’s Going Down?

Lake Michigan water level.

Last spring I got to chatting with a DNR officer at our marina. He’d been on the job of patrolling the St. Joseph River and channel since the 80s, and we got to talking about the water level. He said there was a time in the 90s – as he was writing a ticket to a fisherman on the seawall – when a boat departing the channel a little too fast threw up a wake that lifted the DNR officer’s boat and set it down on the seawall.

I was flabbergasted.

“Yep,” he said, “the lake was only a foot or so lower than the seawall in those days. Back then lakefront homeowners had virtually no beach and were building seawalls to protect their property.”

I’ve seen the remnants of those seawalls high and dry on the beach just south of St. Joseph, but they don’t reveal the severe decline in water level quite like the channel seawall. The seawall today is at least six feet above the water, and it would take one of our typical fall storms with its enormous waves to “set” a boat on the seawall now.

I noted with sadness at the beginning of last season that the one-year-old pilings in our marina had water marks a foot above the current water level. Now, that high-water mark is about 18″ above the water. In fact, Lake Michigan/Huron reached an historic low this year.


As I understand it there are a couple reasons: 1) warmer than normal winters mean less ice over the water and more evaporation, and 2) less snowfall during the winter months.

NOAA has a cool (yet somewhat depressing) Great Lakes Water Level Dashboard that provides historical data, including averages, low water datum, etc. Here’s a screenshot of Lake Michigan. In 3.5 years the water has dropped nearly 3 feet.

Screen Shot 2013-03-21 at 1.47.39 PM


It remains to be seen how the lower water level will impact boaters this season. Certainly some of the deeper-draft boats are going to have a tough time. Local marinas are saying they’ll be dredging now that it’s spring, but tight budgets may preclude such operations for a number of smaller marinas.

Historic data indicate a rise in water level through July, so things should be looking up. The question will be just how rainy the spring and summer months are this year. Last year it was HOT and dry.

Here’s hoping for a milder summer.

Link to an article from The Watershed Center on Grand Traverse Bay.


2 Responses to What’s Going Down?

  1. Joe Smith says:

    Thanks for visiting the dashboard. Glad you found it useful!


  2. Dad says:

    It doesn’t look as bad as we thought. So far, the water levels been much like last year’s.

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