Weather casualty: McCulloch warns of low lake levels
It’s been a mild winter and a hot summer with very little precipitation during both, and long-range forecasts from the National Weather Service in White Lake Township seem to predict that we will not see a change anytime soon. That scenario doesn’t bode well for Oakland County lake levels — which in some cases are already low — and those who use the county’s lakes.
“From August into September we are looking to be above normal in temperatures and still below normal in rainfall,” said Danny Costello, a meteorologist and hydrologist working at the National Weather Service station in White Lake Township.
The lack of precipitation and higher temperatures have caused a moderate drought in Oakland County. And with that comes brown grass and lower lake levels.
“Mild winter conditions with lower than normal snowfall along with little rain have resulted in lower lake levels throughout the county, which poses a serious concern for boat owners,” said Oakland County Water Resources Commissioner John P. McCulloch.
Lower water levels have been seen across the state, affecting water levels in Lake St. Clair and the Great Lakes.
“I know lakefront property owners and boat owners get angry and frustrated when low lake levels affect their use and enjoyment of the water,” McCulloch said. “But unfortunately we are at the mercy of the weather. If we don’t get significant rainfall and adequate runoff from snow melt, low lake levels will continue to be a problem we have to deal with.”
Most problems for boaters stem from boat motors hitting the bottoms of sand bars and needing to extend docks out farther into deeper water so boats aren’t resting on the bottom.
Another concern is aquatic vegetation which, according to Costello, will grow more due to receiving more direct sunlight because of the lower water levels.
According to Steve Korth of the Oakland County Water Resources Commissioner’s Office, this often poses problems for people on canals.
“The water in canals aren’t deep enough to begin with and losing several inches causes a problem with increased weed growth, which cause problems with getting boats out of the canal,” he said.
Without any kind of lake management device, whether it’s a dam or augmentation well, lake levels are left to rise and fall at the mercy of weather conditions.
In fact, evaporation and dry weather spells account for the two biggest difficulties when trying to maintain lake levels in the summer, which is all related to the hydrologic cycle.
In the winter, the ground is frozen, so any precipitation that falls doesn’t enter into a lake. But when the snow begins to melt, a lot of water is going into adjacent waterways and lakes, resulting in rising water levels — especially since in early spring, prior to the grass growing and tree leaves blooming, the water is sucked out of the ground at a much slower pace.
When the tree leaves and grass begin to grow, they take more water from the ground. That water is replenished by large sources of surface water, or lakes, and put back into the ground.
Thus, lake levels have a tendency to drop all summer long since the water that should be feeding a lake is being used by growing plants. That water won’t return to a lake unless there is precipitation, which comes from evaporation of waterways and the transpiration of plants. If there is no precipitation, lake levels go down, only returning after a rain event. As the summer continues, the cycle repeats itself, resulting in fluctuating lake levels.
There are a few means that can be used to attempt to control lake levels, such as the use of control structures.
A control structure is an artificial barrier used to regulate the level of the lake, such as a dam, a weir, a pipe or any other similar type of barrier. The level of a lake can also be controlled by using an augmentation well to put additional water into a lake, or a pump can be used to lower a lake level.
The Water Resources Commissioner’s Office operates and maintains 36 lake level control structures and eight lake level augmentation well pumps in the county. In some cases, the level of more than one lake is controlled by a single control structure. The office has court-ordered responsibility for maintaining normal water levels for 54 Oakland County lakes.
A lake’s legal level represents a lake’s surface water level as compared to sea level. Legal levels are established by Oakland County Circuit Court judges under state statute, but Part 307 of Public Act (PA) 59 of 1995 delegates the responsibility of participating in the legal proceedings to establish and maintain normal lake levels to the county’s Water Resources Commissioner’s Office.
A normal level is considered by state law as the level or levels of the water of an inland lake that provide the most benefit to the public; that best protect the public health, safety and welfare; that best preserve the natural resources of the state; and that best preserve and protect the value of the property around a lake, according to the Water Resources Commissioner’s Office website.
In order to establish a legal lake level, at least two-thirds of lakefront property owners who have property that actually abuts a lake must sign a petition to a county board of commissioners. Action is then initiated to determine the normal level of the lake. The resulting action is generally a feasibility study conducted by a licensed professional engineer.
The feasibility study determines what the lake level should be, based on research culled from historical lake levels and seasonal fluctuations; the location of septic tanks, sea walls, docks and other physical features; downstream impacts; fisheries and wildlife habitat protection; and watershed hydrology.
The board of commissioners has the authority to require a payment from the property owners, collectively, of $10,000 or the total cost of the feasibility study, whichever is the lesser of the two amounts.
Once a legal lake level is set by the circuit court, the Water Resources Commissioner’s Office takes responsibility for monitoring and maintaining a lake’s legal level.
Six bodies of water in the county with legal levels monitored and maintained by the office don’t have a winter level set by the Oakland County Circuit Court. Those bodies of water are the Huron River, Scott Lake in Waterford Township, Lake Angelus, Bush Lake in Holly Township, the Clinton River, and Upper Straits Lake in Orchard Lake Village and West Bloomfield Township.
When the level of a lake is measured at lower than its legal level, the Water Resources Commissioner’s Office has a few remedies available, such as an augmentation well, which is sometimes used to raise lake levels if they’re too low and circumstances call for it. Other than an augmentation well or a dam, there isn’t much that can be done about low lake levels besides hoping for precipitation and moderate air temperatures.
“There’s not much we can do,” Korth said. “These brief rain showers help, but we are getting to the hottest and driest part of summer. We are just hoping for some relief.”
Thunderstorms can help, Costello said, but even then there are issues because some areas will get “dumped upon while some others don’t.”
“During this part of the summer even when it does rain, a lot of it doesn’t make it to the lakes,” he said. “All the thirsty plants get to it first. So the lakes are down, but they don’t seem to be terribly down. I’ve seen worse. We are holding our own, and right now we are at the peak climatologically of the warmest part of the year. Average temperatures will start to go down soon. In my opinion, from the hydrologic side of things, I don’t see things getting worse.”
With a few exceptions, most of the lakes monitored by the Water Resources Commissioner’s Office showed decreases in lake levels for the week of July 20. Nevertheless, most lakes were able to stay close to their legal levels overall.
As of July 20, Cass Lake in West Bloomfield, Waterford, Orchard Lake Village, and Keego Harbor was 0.03 feet above its summer legal level, while Cedar Island Lake in White Lake Township was 0.32 feet above its summer legal level. North and South Commerce lakes in Commerce Township were listed at being 0.10 feet above their summer legal level.
Loon Lake in Waterford was measured at 0.05 feet below its legal level on April 15.
Orchard Lake was listed as 0.38 below its legal level on July 20, and Oxbow Lake in White Lake Township was 0.22 feet below its summer legal level. Schoolhouse Lake in Waterford was measured at 0.03 feet above its summer legal level.
Union Lake in Commerce and West Bloomfield was listed at 0.03 feet above its summer legal level on July 20, while Walled Lake and Shawood Lake in the cities of Walled Lake and Novi were 0.48 feet below their summer legal level. White Lake was 0.13 below its summer legal mark.
Indianwood Lake in Orion Township was 0.14 feet above its summer legal level on July 20, while Lakeville Lake in Addison Township was 0.05 below its summer legal level.
Waumegah Lake in Springfield Township was 0.21 feet below its summer legal level, and Sylvan-Otter Lake was 0.05 above its summer legal level.