Low water levels could drain Great Lake economies

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Water levels in Lake Michigan and Lake Huron are expected to set a record low this year and dry conditions are accelerating a long-term trend — and both commercial shipping and recreational boaters are facing issues.

The problem is a long-term cycle of too little water from melting snow and rain to counter the effects of evaporation on the lakes, Keith Kompoltowicz, chief of watershed hydrology for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Detroit, told CNN.

Last winter, too little snow fell on the Great Lakes region to fully replenish the lakes. While Lake Michigan and Lake Huron typically rise a foot after the spring melt, the lakes only rose four inches last spring, Kompoltowicz said.

Add that tiny rise to a very hot, very dry summer that sucked water out of the lake like a straw, and you have a recipe for the decline in lake levels under way today, eh said.

There's too little data to say the problem is a product of global warming, he said. It's also a cycle that's been seen before.

"In years past, there was always a buffer," said Chris Berkey, a commercial skipper who delivering staples like cement to industries in harbors that dot the coastlines. "That buffer's gone."

In Frankfort, Michigan, a popular salmon run on the Betsie River draws tourists drawn by the lure of fishing a rare naturally replenished population of the prized fish, said city manager Josh Mills.

"We see people from Texas, from Georgia, from Ohio, Illinois, other areas of Michigan," he said.

But low lake levels last year dried up the run, leaving salmon flopping in the mud, and forcing the state Department of Natural Resources to close to run to protect the population.

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