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16 years later, Great Lakes levels rebound

Lake Michigan
Jennifer Guerra
Michigan Radio
Lake Michigan as seen from Beaver Island

Lakes Michigan and Huron have recovered after more than a decade of low water levels.

Government scientists say the lakes rose above their historic average this month.

Just two years ago, the water was at the lowest level ever recorded.

The quick recovery has stifled an effort to engineer a solution to the problem of low lake levels in Huron and Michigan.

But proponents say it would be shortsighted to forget about the issue.

Dan Mishler says the lack of water in Lake Michigan in recent years was great for companies that make and sell docks.

"Because everybody had to buy 50 to 100 feet more dock to be able to get out into deep enough water so they could get their boats in and out," he said.

Mishler is the head of the Lake Charlevoix Association. One of the group's missions is to advocate for sensible and sustainable practices for lake use and development. 

Lake Charlevoix connects to Lake Michigan through a channel that’s about 100 feet wide, so the lakes rise and fall together.

When the water reached an all-time low, Mishler says even the extended docks weren’t long enough.

"A lot of people in the fall of 2012 had to hire barges to come in and actually tow their boats off their lifts."

Group wants structure built at St. Clair River

Because of these troubles, the lake association joined a group called Restore Our Water International.

If Lakes Huron and Michigan were a bathtub, the St. Clair River would be the drain.

It’s pushing for the U.S. and Canadian governments to build a structure at the St. Clair River to reduce the amount of water flowing out to Lake Erie.

If Lakes Huron and Michigan were a bathtub, the St. Clair River would be the drain.

Roger Gauthier chairs the group.

Gauthier says people shouldn’t be comforted by a couple cold, wet years in the upper Great Lakes.

"2013 was the wettest year on Michigan-Huron in the last 116 [years]. Since we’ve been recording [the levels], it’s been the wettest year. It's not likely to continue that way and we’re more likely than not to see the waters return to a lower profile in the next four to five years," he says.

The idea of engineering a fix at the St. Clair River to keep more water in Lakes Michigan and Huron has been around for decades.

The structures are called sills. They're like underwater speed bumps that would restrict the flow of water out of Lake Huron.

Supporters say it's fair because dredging in the river in the last century widened the channel, so that now water flows out more quickly than it should.

The debate continues

"We need to be thinking about, not completely engineering the solution, but using engineering as part of another arrow in the quiver." — Roger Gauthier, chair of Restore Our Water International.

Not everyone agrees.

Drew Gronewald, a scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, says the lakes were low mainly because of evaporation.

He says Lakes Michigan and Huron warmed up in the late 1990s — a lot — and that led to more evaporation.

"It’s really that sustained high water loss through evaporation that we believe kept water levels low despite, in fact, above average precipitation for much of this time," he says.

Gronewald stresses that it’s very difficult to predict what will happen with Great Lakes water levels in the years ahead, because the system is too complex. That’s why some people are reluctant to tinker with the water levels.

But Gauthier disagrees. He says that countries in other parts of the world are more aggressive about protecting coastal zones from fluctuating water levels. He thinks people around Lakes Huron and Michigan need to be more open to softening the impacts of extreme water levels — high or low.

"We need to be thinking about, not completely engineering the solution, but using engineering as part of another arrow in the quiver," he says.

For now, that will be an uphill fight, since Lakes Huron and Michigan have just risen above their average level, and Gauthier says interest on the U.S. side has fallen off now that the lakes are up.