Lake Superior water levels: good for boaters, bad for beach seekers

Boats large and small are having an easier time on Lake Superior this year due to higher-than-average water levels, says a Great Lakes researcher.

US-based environmental lab says August's levels higher this year than average

Large ships and recreational boats are benefiting from higher-than-average water levels on Lake Superior this year, says an expert at the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory (NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory)

Boats large and small are having an easier time on Lake Superior this year due to higher-than-average water levels, says a Great Lakes researcher.

The higher water table is mainly due to the combination of wet weather —both rain and snow — and cold winters over the past couple of years said Andrew Gronewold, a hydrologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory in Ann Arbor, Mich.

Currently, the lake is almost 20 cm higher than the August average, and almost 70 cm higher than the lake's lowest point in August, set in 2007.

Lake Superior's water levels generally follow a yearly cycle, rising to their highest point in July and August before declining through the fall.

"When water levels get extremely low, it can often be hard for commercial vessels or even individual recreational vessels to access narrow channels," Gronewold said, adding that vessels now have easier access to docks, marinas and ports.

'It looks like the water is creeping into the bush'

That's also what Alexander Paterson is noticing this year.

The avid boater from Thunder Bay said a recent outing on the water highlighted how high it has become.

"I was just on a trip actually 50 miles east of Thunder Bay by boat into a bay that I've seen keel sailboats travel in the past," he said. "This is the first time I remember, since 30 years ago, that it looked like a keel sailboat could get into this bay."
Data shows Lake Superior's August water levels are higher than average this year, but still haven't reached record marks. (Parks Canada)

Looking back at land from the water also gives an indication of how much the water has risen in the past 10 years, he said.

"It's very interesting to the eye .... many of the shorelines that are tree-lined shorelines, it looks like the water is creeping into the bush."
Port officials in Thunder Bay say high water levels ease concerns about access throughout the Great Lakes shipping route. (Port of Thunder Bay)

Thunder Bay port officials also are saying that the current state of the lake is benefiting larger vessels in the lake. Harbour master Guy Jarvis told CBC News higher levels significantly reduce concerns about access throughout the Great Lakes shipping routes.

"When you have low water and you have silting ... you may have to restrict the loading of a cargo ship, but that hasn't happened in the last 10 years."

While levels this month are higher than average, they've still not reached the lake's high point for August, set back in 1952.

Lake Superior levels rebounding after years of low water

Part of the reason why the lake looks so high is the relatively long period of low water that's preceded the past couple of years, Gronewold said.

"Many folks around the Great Lakes have grown accustomed to low water levels," he said. "And one of the areas we've seen an impact there is with beaches."
This graph from the NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory shows over the past two years, Lake Superior has seen higher-than-average water levels after years of the opposite. (http://www.glerl.noaa.gov/data/dashboard/GLD.html)

"Many folks have been used to having these sort of wide expanses of shoreline property, beaches, and they've gotten accustomed to water levels being a particular point and a particular shoreline."

But data shows the lake levels that produced those beaches were well below average. Gronewold said starting in the late 1990s, lake levels declined dramatically and stayed that way for about 15 years.

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