With the snow almost entirely melted, southeastern Michigan has entered into that ugly transition period between the last vestiges of winter and the beginning of spring. This also marks the time of year when lake levels begin to rise from their winter levels due to melting snow and spring showers, and thus begins the careful guessing game played by the Oakland County Water Resources Commission (WRC) to maintain the legal lake levels currently established on 54 Oakland County lakes.
In the fall, the WRC lowers the lake levels to those established for the winter, and then in the spring allows the water to rise to the summer legal limits. However, there is a certain amount of “guesstimation” involved since the lake levels primarily depend on the weather.
And because Michigan is located in the Midwest, predicting the weather can sometimes be as difficult as predicting which NCAA teams are going to make it to the Final Four.
“We try to maintain the legal level of lakes as best we can within several inches,” explained Chuck Lawhorn, drain maintenance and lake level engineer for the WRC. “We normally try to keep it within two inches above or below the legal level. We look at the weather report — which is not always correct — and try to forecast a plan to keep the legal level the best we can. It’s very weather-dependent.”
He added, “Right now, most of the lakes are above or close to summer legal levels, and we haven’t had much rain recently so we should be good going into the spring.”
However, weather historian Bill Deedler with the National Weather Service Station in White Lake Township is expecting precipitation to be above normal this coming spring.
“We look for them to be above average for the months of March, April, and May,” he said.
Yet, Deedler expects lake levels to be the same or only be a bit higher than they were last summer even with above average snowfall this year and above average precipitation levels in the Detroit area in February and March.
In the month of February, the precipitation level was about 1.72 inches above normal in the metro Detroit region at 3.60 inches and continued to be “well over an inch” above normal in March at 3.61 inches.
However, Deedler explained that the there was less precipitation recorded in the northern suburbs. White Lake, for example, recorded only 1.99 inches of precipitation in February and 3.17 inches in March.
And although northern suburbs also saw above average snowfall, Deedler said that the north received a drier snow than Metro Detroit.
“Most of (the snow) was not heavy, meaning it had less moisture,” he explained.
As for the rest of the spring outlook, Deedler is expecting temperatures to hover around average with perhaps a difference of a degree above or below and for the precipitation to be pretty well mixed throughout the spring months. Although, he said, May has a tendency to be a very wet month.
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 — which can sometimes present concerns for lakefront property owners during dry, hot summer periods that cause water loss through evaporation.
In fact, Lawhorn said that “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 does not enter into the lake, but when the snow begins to melt, a lot of water is going into the water courses 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.
Yet, when the 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 the lake is being used by growing plants instead.
That water won’t return to a lake unless there is precipitation, which comes from evaporation of bodies of water and transpiration of plants. If there is no precipitation, the lake levels draw down, returning after a rain event. As the summer continues, the cycle repeats itself, resulting in fluctuating lake levels.
“Rains make it easier to maintain the levels of lakes. During the dry season, it is much more difficult,” Lawhorn said. “However, we have two lake technicians who monitor the control structures, and they do an excellent job of maintaining the legal levels.”
Because August is typically a pretty dry month, Lawhorn explained that they usually start shutting down control structures before then to make sure they are not letting out too much water.
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 or pump to put additional water into a lake or a pump can be used to lower a lake level.
The WRC 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.
Lake level control structures are regularly inspected and maintenance repairs are indicated, which helps to provide for properly functioning control devices and regular maintenance and repairs.
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 59 of 1995 delegates the responsibility of participating in the legal proceedings to establish and maintain normal lake levels to the county Water Resource 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 WRC web site.
In order to have a legal lake level, at least two-thirds of lakefront property owners who have property which actually abuts the lake must submit a petition to a county board of commissioners. Action is 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 court, the Water Resource Commissioner’s Office takes responsibility for monitoring and maintaining a lake’s level.
According to Lawhorn, their lake technicians visit sites twice a week to read and record measurements of the lake found on the control structures. The WRC also employs SCADA — which stands for Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition — a system that aggregates data from meter readings while simultaneously checking the statuses of sensors that are communicated at regular intervals.
According to the WRC’s Office’s measurements of area lakes with a court-established legal level on Friday, April 1, most lakes were above their legal winter levels and near or even slightly above their summer levels.
Most lakes establish winter levels that are lower than the summer levels to protect sea walls that would otherwise be damaged by ice, according to Lawhorn.
Three bodies of water with legal levels monitored and maintained by the county Water Resource Commissioner’s Office in the lakes area don’t have a legal winter level set by the Oakland County Circuit Court. Those bodies of water are the Huron River, Scott Lake in Waterford Township, and Upper Straits Lake in Orchard Lake Village and West Bloomfield Township.
As of April 1, Cass Lake in West Bloomfield, Waterford, Orchard Lake Village, and Keego Harbor was 0.22 feet below its summer legal level, while Cedar Island Lake in White Lake Township was 0.08 feet below its summer legal level. North and South Commerce lakes in Commerce Township were listed at being 0.52 feet above their legal level on April 1.
Loon Lake in Waterford was measured at 0.5 feet above its legal level on April 1.
Orchard Lake was listed as 0.06 feet below its summer legal level on April 1, and Oxbow Lake in White Lake Township was 0.16 feet below its legal level. Schoolhouse Lake in Waterford was measured at 0.30 feet below its legal level on April 1.
Union Lake in Commerce and West Bloomfield was listed at 0.12 feet below its summer legal level on April 1, while Walled Lake and Shawood Lake in the City of Walled Lake and Novi were 0.28 feet above their legal level. White Lake was below its legal mark by 0.03 feet on April 1.
If the level of the lake is 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.
However, not everybody believes maintaining specific lake levels is to the benefit of the environment.
While limnologist Walley Fusilier, a specialist in the study of freshwater ponds and lakes, understands that many lakefront property owners on lakes with set legal levels enjoy having stable levels, he said that he is “really a fan of fluctuating lake levels.”
“It exposes the sediment at the bottom to oxygen, which in turn decomposes organic materials,” Fusilier explained. “So the organic materials in the sediment dies which gets rid of them allowing the water to be more oxygenated. Plus, it also reverses the aging process (of the lake), which is something humans have been trying to do for themselves for years.”
Fusilier also believes that letting lake levels drop — even so much as six to eight feet over a period of years — is better than maintaining certain levels.
For example, Fusilier explained, lakes that have too much aquatic vegetation could be better controlled by dropping water levels so as to make the environment hostile enough so they can’t survive — something which could result in a healthier, more oxygenated aquatic environment. Furthermore, a drop in water levels could also help maintain and clean up beaches.
“But if you have a legal level, you’re not allowed to do that unless the court agrees that you can,” he said.