Snowmelt helps refill parched Great Lakes
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Friday, 07 March 2008 04:10

The melt from one of the snowiest winters in years around the Great Lakes is expected to boost water levels in the upper lakes, which had hit or approached record lows last fall, by as much as a foot this summer, bringing joy to boaters and lakeside businesses.

"We didn't expect this dramatic turnaround," said Scott Thieme, chief hydrologist of the Detroit office of the Army Corps of Engineers. "It's a much better picture than it was six months ago. ...We're just amazed at the weather we've had."


Last fall, projections were dire. Lake Superior hit record lows in August and September, and Lakes Michigan and Huron were near all-time lows. The Corps expected spring to bring new record lows.

Meteorologists across the Great Lakes said this season's heavy storms have pulled in moisture from as far away as the Gulf of Mexico. This snow is heavy, dense and full of water, compared with the usual lake-effect storms that suck moisture off the Great Lakes and drop it back as fluffy, dry snow, merely recycling the water from lake to land, back to lake. The imported moisture also bodes well for thirsty streams, rivers and inland lakes, some of which also had reached extremely low levels.

"We've had copious snow and rain across the Great Lakes into Wisconsin, Iowa and Illinois, so I would think they'll be on the high side of the projections," said Bill Deedler, meteorologist with the National Weather Service office in White Lake Township. Those projections generally suggest levels in the upper Great Lakes this summer will be 6 to 12 inches higher than they were last summer.

In Grand Rapids, weather service meteorologist Janis Laurens agreed with other colleagues. "Michigan has gotten hammered," she said. Grand Rapids, Flint and Saginaw had their snowiest Februarys ever, and tiny Wellston, near Manistee, already set a new record for the winter season.

While boaters and lakefront property owners will mostly take notice when warm weather arrives, the snow also has been sweet for snowmobilers and skiers who have suffered through recent winters.

The snow is mostly due to a La Niña weather pattern that draws on cooler Pacific Ocean waters, meteorologists said.

Better, but still below average

Deedler said inland lakes were low last summer, especially before heavy rains in August. "They dried out, but I think we'll start this spring on a good note," he said. "If we're lucky, it will hold into summer."

Scott Rozanski, weather service meteorologist in Gaylord, said the heavy snow this winter tends to melt less quickly than lake-effect snow. "It's staying on the ground, so when it melts, it will soak in," he said.

Although the Great Lakes are expected to rebound higher through August, the Corps said the upper lakes -- Superior, Michigan and Huron -- will be below their long-term averages.

In December, Lakes Michigan and Huron, joined by the Straits of Mackinac, were just inches above a record low. The two lakes will still be 18-24 inches below longtime averages this summer, but 6 to 12 inches above record lows. "There aren't any more scary records looming," Thieme said.

Lake Superior is expected to be about 8 to 12 inches below its average. Levels for Lake Ontario should be at or above average for the next six months.

Lake St. Clair is up considerably -- on year-to-year comparisons -- since December. That is likely to moderate this spring, though, leaving the lake 3 to 11 inches below average into summer. A wet spring could bring the lake closer to its average, Thieme said. Lake Erie should be near or above normal.

All the lakes but Superior rose in February, a time when they normally fall. Evaporation remains an issue, as lake temperatures heading into winter were higher than normal, leading to low ice cover. Erie froze over only in late February, three weeks later than normal, the National Ice Center said.

Impact on ships, property owners

Last year was one of the worst on the Great Lakes for shippers. Some had to load so lightly because of low water that they lost 15,000 tons of cargo per trip, said Glenn Nekvasil, spokesman for the Lake Carriers Association in Cleveland.

"A few inches will be appreciated, but we're talking about recovering feet of draft, so a little extra snow this year is not going to solve a lot of problems," Nekvasil said.

Doug Martz, chairman of the Macomb County Water Quality Board, has lived along the same canal near Lake St. Clair since 1978 and watched levels rise and fall. He has three boats, the smallest a 16-footer. He has noticed a little more water in the canal, but nothing impressive.

"For me to get a boat back there, I would need about 30 inches more to get it back to the way it was six years ago," he said. "It still feels like somebody pulled the plug."

Bill Thede, who owns property on Lake Huron near Harbor Beach, said beach owners in the area have been concerned about lower lake levels. But he's optimistic that the increased snowfall will help.

"It would sure make a lot of people happy," he said.

Be glad when you see those snow clouds hovering.

"I get sick of shoveling, but it sure is good for the lakes," Thieme said.

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