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St. Clair Shores

Lower-than-average lake levels mean changes for local boaters

March 6, 2013

When Kat Simasko married her husband, Joseph, and moved into his home on Jefferson Avenue near 13 Mile Road, Lake St. Clair lapped at their sea wall at a height of 4 feet.

At that time, nine years ago, the couple had a boat on a hoist and could take advantage of their lakefront property the way it was intended.

Since then, the water has seemed to recede each year from their sea wall. Three years ago, Simasko said, they had to push their S2 sailboat — which only needs six inches of water to float — out a few feet to launch it. It hasn’t been in the lake since.

“There’s no water under the boat hoist, it’s all beach,” she said. “We can’t push it 20, 30 feet; it will probably destroy the boat.

“Now you have to go 18, 20 feet before you can even get to an inch of water.”

Sheila Connolly, who has lived in her lakefront home on Jefferson Avenue north of Masonic Boulevard for 13 years, said they saw the lowest lake level they remember at the end of the 2012 summer.

“I don’t have a boat but my neighbor does, and he had trouble getting it out,” she said. “About mid-August … he had to, literally, drag this big boat out quite a ways before he and his wife could get out on it.”

Connolly said her neighbor built a new dock and painted the pylons; she did hers at the same time. That was at the end of August 2012. By September, the lake had dropped a foot below the new paint at the end of her dock.

The anecdotes are backed up by lake levels recorded by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Detroit, which said the lake didn’t rise at all in 2012.

“It (Lake St. Clair) was at its highest level in January (2012) and either stayed steady or declined for 12 straight months,” said Keith Kompoltowicz, chief of watershed hydrology with the Army Corps of Engineers in Detroit. “Those types of years are very rare on Lake St. Clair.”

He said Lake St. Clair isn’t at a record low, but is still below average for this time of year again in 2013. In an average year, Kompoltowicz said, the lake is at its lowest level in February and reaches its peak height in June or July, fluctuating anywhere from a foot to 18 inches each year. But the dry conditions of 2012 allowed the lake to decline through the entire year instead.

“The water level in January (2013) was 2 feet above the record low, but 13 inches below its long-term average,” he said. “Our forecast extends now into July and we’re forecasting that Lake St. Clair is going to remain anywhere from 10 to as much as 17 inches below its long-term average through July.”

The Corps began recording monthly mean surface elevations in 1918. The long-term average for February for Lake St. Clair is 573.43 feet above sea level. The forecast for the month this year, however, was 572.60 feet.

Kompoltowicz said the lower levels would likely mean more dredging of the lake, as well as changes for shipping.

“Once commercial navigation starts up again, later this spring, freighters will have to light-load,” he said. “They have to make more trips to deliver their needed quotas (which) increases the amount of money they have to spend.”

For recreational boaters, he said there could be changes, as well.

“Access is really an issue to the recreational boater to their favorite location, preferred marina,” he said. “They might not be able to go to their preferred locations because of low water.”

Indeed, St. Clair Shores Mayor Kip Walby said the city requested, and has received, bids to dredge the Lac Sainte Claire Harbor at 11 Mile Road behind City Hall.

“We haven’t done it in the last couple years,” he said. “Obviously, due to lake levels being so low, we’re going to have to dredge.”

He said the city sets money aside in a contingency fund to pay for dredging its marinas, but it will still cost between $50,000 and $75,000 to do the work. Its been done twice in the last decade, Walby said.

“We have to have the marina open, so we have to dredge it, so we don’t have a choice,” he said. “Once we dredge it, it shouldn’t have to be done for another couple years.

“It’s the cost of keeping the marina open.”

Kompoltowicz said Lake St. Clair, because of its size, fluctuates and responds more quickly to rain or snow events than the Great Lakes. In 2011, for instance, it spent the majority of the year near to or above its long-term average.

Connolly said she hopes the snowfall and freezing conditions this year will add up to higher lake conditions this summer, but she’s not sure.

“From the time I moved in here, the lake level has gone down each year,” she said. “We had a couple of years where it came up a little bit, but by September, it came way down. This year, because it froze, I’m hoping.”

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