You’ve probably noticed. Beaches are a bit wider. More weeds have sprouted along the bottom.
Boaters have run aground in shallow marinas.
Lakes Erie, Ontario and Superior are below historical averages for December, and Lakes Michigan and Huron are at record lows.
In windy conditions, fierce waves that used to crash over a 12-foot wall onto Route 5 in Hamburg now ripple harmlessly on sand.
Diners at Hoak’s Restaurant on Lake Erie in the Town of Hamburg have been telling owner Ed Hoak they’ve never seen the lake’s water so low, revealing large rocks jutting from the sand.
“The wind is blowing hard, and the water’s not even touching the wall,” Hoak said.
The mild 2011-12 winter that carried over into a summer drought has created lower water levels throughout the Great Lakes system.
In fact, receding waters recently exposed several old shipwrecks in a river that funnels into Lake Michigan.
The low lake levels for Erie and Ontario, though not even close to record-breaking, are making some nervous. That is particularly true in communities such as Olcott and Wilson, which rely heavily on the business of out-of-state boaters and fisherman who launch and dock from local marinas.
Residents of the harbor hamlet of Olcott, along the shores of Lake Ontario, haven’t seen the water level this low in years.
“It’s the worst I’ve seen it, and I’ve lived here my whole life,” said Tim Horanburg, Newfane supervisor.
That goes for neighboring Wilson, too.
“We had boats that were sitting in mud as early as the end of August,” said Wilson Supervisor Joseph Jastrzemski. “We probably lost two months of the boating season this year, because of the lake levels.”
Horanburg and Jastrzemski hope a winter of heavy snowfall, combined with a wet spring, can raise the lake levels enough to keep the tourists coming back.
“Starting in the fall, the lake level really dropped, and we were having trouble getting boats out,” Horanburg said. “If it doesn’t come up, we’re all going to be in trouble in the spring.”
Water levels in the Great Lakes fluctuate over the years, based on precipitation patterns, and over the seasons, going up in the spring and down in the fall, said Craig Stow, a senior scientist at the Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory. The laboratory is one of seven operated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Erie and Ontario spiked during a record rainfall in spring 2011, but since then, the waters have continued to recede, as drought conditions plagued much of the United States.
“We have essentially had some very mild winters, so there wasn’t much snowpack, and when that happens, you don’t get the melting and runoff in the spring,” Stow said.
There also has been less ice coverage and more evaporation, because the lakes are generally warmer, he said.
As of Dec. 19, Lake Erie was at 570.3 feet above sea level, which is roughly 6½ inches below the lake’s long-term average for December, according to the Army Corps of Engineers. The corps monitors lake levels.
While it’s still a good two feet from the record December low set in 1934, the difference has been noticeable this year.
“We had issues at our launch site starting probably last fall,” said Mark Clapsadl, field station manager at the Buffalo State College Great Lakes Center. “Now, the water is so low, the ramp just drops right off.”
“Normally, we do experience a low, and then it comes back,” added Chris Todorov, operations manager of the NFTA Small Boat Harbor, “but we never saw it come back, all season long.”
The lower water level means Hoak doesn’t need to board up the windows to his restaurant in stormy conditions as often. But Hoak isn’t sure the current conditions are out of whack.
He remembers the lake being even lower in the 1960s.
“What’s normal? I don’t know,” he said.
Ontario, meanwhile, is about 10 inches below normal for this time of year; Superior is more than a foot below normal.
“The worst is Michigan and Huron, which is about 2½ feet below the normal average,” said Paul Yu, chief of water management for the Army Corps of Engineers in Buffalo.
“The upper lakes have been below normal for quite awhile now,” he said.
Will the trend continue?
That’s the big question.
In the short term, a good six months of above-normal precipitation will be needed to return lake levels to normal, Yu said.
And based on recent predictions by the Army Corps of Engineers, don’t count on that happening. “It would take a massive amount of water,” Horanburg said.
The drop in water level is dramatic in spots along Lake Ontario, he said.
Not only is there not enough water coming into the Great Lakes system, but the levels in Ontario are controlled and go down with increased flows through the Moses Saunders Power Dam, near Massena, to generate power and commerce along the St. Lawrence River, Horanburg said.
The buildup of silt in the Olcott and Wilson harbors has made the lower water levels even more noticeable.
One of the private marinas in Wilson lost about $100,000 of business this year because of trouble getting in and out of the harbor, Jastrzemski said.
“They’re going elsewhere,” he said.
A normal lake level is crucial to the community’s tourism industry, he said.
“Our businesses survive and thrive in the summer,” Jastrzemski said. “That’s what gets them through the lean months in the winter.”
Officials in both Newfane and Wilson have been discussing how to come up with the money to dredge their harbors.
Federal money for dredging the Wilson harbor used to be available through discretionary funds from local members of Congress, but those days are gone, Jastrzemski said. The last time the harbor was properly dredged was in 1994, he said.
“It’s a real nightmare for us,” Horanburg said of the lake levels. “If it keeps going down, it could potentially put us out of business. I’m not sure what we’re going to do.”