ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

Planning water activities? Watch out!

From Lake Superior to the lake-strewn region of east-central Minnesota and northern Wisconsin, boaters enjoying the Independence Day holiday should pay more attention this year.

From Lake Superior to the lake-strewn region of east-central Minnesota and northern Wisconsin, boaters enjoying the Independence Day holiday should pay more attention this year.

Lake levels are down from those of recent decades -- in some places near historic lows -- and the consequences for keels, engines and bows aren't pretty.

"White Bear Lake, for instance, is real bad," said Jim Johnson, owner of Maplewood Marine, which repairs outboard motors. "They are really whacking them up right now."

After a dry summer and fall, snowfall last winter was below normal across the region, leaving it short of moisture. Northern Minnesota was especially dry this spring, leading to a huge fire that consumed part of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Although that area has received more rain, portions of east-central Minnesota and northern Wisconsin have gotten 2 to 5 inches less than normal since April 1.

That's helped push lake levels down as much as 2 feet, causing problems for boaters and lake residents who aren't accustomed to the lower waterlines. Not only is it harder to launch and to trailer boats at public landings, but formerly hidden reefs and rock bars are catching the unaware and the careless.

ADVERTISEMENT

White Bear Lake, for example, is down 20 inches from last year, said Jason Brown, owner of White Bear Boat Works in White Bear Lake. "People who own lake shore are getting more and more lake frontage," he said. "We need rain."

Other popular lakes are having similar problems. Mille Lacs Lake is down about a foot from last year, two marine business owners said. And Lake Superior is down 19 inches, near its historic low, set it 1926, according to the Army Corps of Engineers.

Lakes in northern Wisconsin are as much as several feet lower than normal. Shell Lake is down 5 or 6 feet from its high and 1 to 2 feet lower than its ordinary high-water mark, said Ed Slaminski, water management specialist for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

"This part of the state is in a severe drought condition," Slaminski said.

Lower levels are causing problems for boaters and shippers alike.

Terry Smude, owner of Terry's Marine & Small Engine, located 22 miles southeast of Brainerd, Minn., is having a busy season, repairing engines damaged or fouled by rocks, mud and sand.

"It's been good for prop repairs and lower units," Smude said.

Boaters on Little Whitefish Lake, he added, are having difficulty just getting their boats in and out of channels.

ADVERTISEMENT

Lake Superior is near a historic low. Last month, it was within an inch of its all-time low for June. It has since gone up 4 inches but remains lower than normal.

That's causing problems for commercial vessels, which are forced to carry fewer tons of cargo, and even boats leaving or entering marinas.

"We hang on every rainstorm to see how much water comes into the lake," said Jim Sharrow, facilities manager at the Duluth Seaway Port Authority.

Lakes residents know low and high levels are cyclical and generally accept changes with a shrug of the shoulders, said Bruce Johnson, executive director of Minnesota Waters, an organization of lakes associations and rivers groups.

"The ability of them to recreate as they would like is limited," Johnson said.

Lower water levels also mean lakes heat up faster and see more growth of aquatic vegetation, including invasive Eurasian milfoil, he added.

"Weed growth is astronomical because of the low water," Smude added. "When water levels drop, most of these shallow lakes turn into nothing but weed beds."

"There's just not a lot you can do," Johnson said. "It's not like you can turn a spigot on."

ADVERTISEMENT

The rest of Minnesota isn't bad. Despite lack of rain recently, lakes in southern Minnesota are near normal and those in the northwest are higher than normal, said Mel Sinn, who's in charge of the technical resources section in the Minnesota DNR's division of waters.

Lakes in northern Minnesota that had been low -- such as Lake of the Woods and Rainy -- have rebounded, he said.

DNR climatologist Pete Boulay agreed conditions have improved in the north and have become drier between the Twin Cities and Duluth. A drier-than-normal June is especially bothersome, he said.

"Any dry spell in June matters because it's the wettest time of year," he said.

While recent lake levels may seem low, they actually are near historical norms, said George Orning, a research fellow in the University of Minnesota's Department of Forest Resources.

Rainfall throughout the 1990s and into the first half of this decade was greater than normal, leading to higher lake levels and a different set of expectations for many people.

"There were many, many years that they were at the levels they are at now or below," Orning said.

-- Copyright © 2007, St. Paul Pioneer Press/Distributed by McClatchy-

Tribune Information Services.

What To Read Next