This story was originally published July 30, 2013 as part of the series "Uncharted Waters."
An unprecedented spike in evaporation is not the only reason Lakes Michigan and Huron hit a record low this winter.
If you think of the two lakes that sprawl across 45,000 square miles as one colossal bathtub, then the drain is a mere 800-foot-wide gap at the southern tip of Lake Huron. This is the headwaters of the St. Clair River, a torrent that, in places, runs up to 70 feet deep.
Lakes Michigan and Huron are actually one body of water — two lobes of the world's largest freshwater lake — and this river pulls their waters southward toward Lake Erie, over Niagara Falls and, ultimately, out to the Atlantic Ocean.
This makes the St. Clair River one of the most ecologically sensitive and hydrologically critical places in all the Great Lakes.
It is also among the most ravaged.
Humans have been expanding the size of this drain hole for more than a century, beginning in the 1850s, when shallow choke points in the channel were scraped away so schooners could sail up from Lake Erie.
In the 1890s, profiteers began mining the riverbed for its thick deposits of sand and gravel, an estimated 3.5 million cubic yards of which were hauled off between 1908 and 1925 alone — enough material to fill some 300,000 dump trucks.
Even with the measurement tools available at the time, this had a noticeable impact on lake levels, so in 1926 government officials put an end to the mining.
Lakes Michigan and Huron have now gone a record 14 years without reaching their long-term average level, and they set a new record low in January.
The water level has since rebounded a bit with the exceptionally wet spring, but it remains about a foot and a half below its average for this time of year. The situation has created havoc for everything from coal boat captains to marina operators to shoreline property owners from Milwaukee's northern suburbs all the way to Georgian Bay at the top of Lake Huron.
Georgian Bay's location less than three hours north of Toronto has made it a prime place for vacation homes, much like Door County is to Milwaukee and Chicago.
It is a place hit particularly hard by the low water because areas of its shoreline are so gently sloping that when the water is down, it doesn't just dip in front of some docks and wetlands. It disappears.
Michael McCartney bought a plot on a 200-acre island in Georgian Bay almost 25 years ago, when the wild blue waters were chest-deep at the end of his dock.
His link to the outside world was a 22-foot yellow Sea Ray motorboat, which he used to ferry building materials from the mainland as he and his wife and children painstakingly built their own home.
Then the water levels started to drop and the McCartneys extended the dock into deeper water. The water kept dropping. McCartney bought a smaller boat, then a smaller boat, and then a smaller one yet.
Now McCartney is at work in his garage building a hovercraft.
The chronically low water has been a financial disaster for McCartney, who four years ago was diagnosed with stage 4 prostate cancer.
"I wanted to sell the cottage so my wife would have money to live on after I died," he said.
He put the home on the market a few years back for its appraised value: $380,000. But he got no nibbles, so he dropped the price to $325,000 and spent another $25,000 dredging a channel deep enough for smaller boats. Still nothing.
McCartney continued dropping the price, to $300,000, to $275,000 and then to $250,000. The water kept dropping too.
When McCartney's real estate agent finally told him he couldn't get his boat out to the island, McCartney took his home off the market to wait until higher waters return.
There have been other costs as well. The marsh near his home used to be prime spawning habitat for pike and bass, as well as a staging area for ducks, geese, swans and herons. Those wetlands are now dry.
There are 5,460 miles of shoreline along Lakes Michigan and Huron, every inch of which is directly affected by how much water tumbles through that 800-foot gap at the headwaters of the St. Clair.
Door County's Mike Kahr operates a dredging business that has him scrambling up and down the rocky shores of Wisconsin's most coastal county — a dock doctor tending to the low water epidemic with his barge, excavator and a hydraulic jackhammer, working to buy cottage owners a little more depth.
Today, some docks built for higher water tower nearly 7 feet off the water; others that once harbored sleek sailboats can now be used for only the tiniest of runabouts. And some cases are incurable — it no longer makes sense to try to chase the water downward, into the boulders and through the bedrock.
"Some docks are useless. Totally useless," Kahr said. "It's just not worth sinking the money into them."
Forcing the issue
Mary Muter is not the easiest person to deal with. Not when she is pressing for the U.S. and Canadian governments to do something about the low water levels in her Georgian Bay and across the rest of Lakes Michigan and Huron.
Muter's home on an eight-acre island was built by her father in the early 1960s, around the time the water level was at a record low following the Army Corps' last major dredging of the St. Clair.
When wet weather took hold and the water began to climb in the late '60s, Muter's father had to rebuild the dock. Then the water level surged to record highs in 1974, and the family built a ramp on top of the dock.
Despite the inconveniences, the family learned to live with what it considered natural fluctuations, the price paid for living on the world's largest expanse of fresh water.
But Muter doesn't think what is going on now is just nature at work.
She acknowledges that unprecedented evaporation has contributed to lower water levels, but she also blames the St. Clair dredging and what she sees as the government's "irresponsible" decision not to compensate for it.
Muter had been eyeing the river with some suspicion after the water's mysterious 3-foot plunge from 1998 to 1999. She had a vague understanding of the St. Clair dredging history and the critical role it plays in governing lake levels. This made her wonder if something more was at play than just quirky weather patterns, and she finally decided to travel to see the St. Clair's headwaters for herself.
She is not a hydrologist and she already viewed the river as a prime suspect. So, when Muter got out of her black Volvo that day back in 2001, it is probably no surprise that she was stunned at the pace of the current, against which small boats struggled upstream into Lake Huron.
She was also dismayed by the fortified wall that had become the riverbank on the U.S. side of the river, and was amazed that in places along the Canadian side the sandy-bottomed river was only a couple of feet deep. She looked up and saw a freighter gliding by impossibly close.
"I said to myself: how could it get that deep, from where I'm standing to where that ship was," Muter recalled. "The ship was only 100 to 150 feet from me."
Muter went back to Georgian Bay and started digging into the historical dredging records and never-finished plans to compensate for the lost water. Then she helped spearhead a $250,000 fundraising effort by a Georgian Bay group to hire an engineering firm to literally get to the bottom of what was going on in the river.
She got the answer she was looking for in 2004, when her group released an alarming study that said unexpected erosion since the dredging in the 1960s had sapped from the lakes far more than what the U.S. and Canadian governments had acknowledged.
The study claimed the total loss tied to riverbed mining, dredging and subsequent erosion was actually more than two feet — and getting worse by the day.
It theorized that the 1960s dredging scraped away a durable layer of cobble and rock, exposing soft material that began to erode in the considerable current, leading to further water loss.
It said the problem was compounded by development along southern Lake Huron's shore and along the St. Clair riverbank that blocked sand and other material from flowing down into the river channel and steadily filling in eroded zones.
The gist of the report: The rock-solid plug that had kept Lakes Michigan and Huron in place for thousands of years had been turned to mush.
The Army Corps acknowledged that something was amiss, pointing to the relative surface levels between Michigan-Huron and Lake Erie.
Because the two systems are connected, when Michigan-Huron drops, downstream Lake Erie historically dropped similarly. But in recent decades the approximately nine-foot difference in "head" between the two had been shrinking — by as much as a foot, according to the Georgian Bay study. This meant Michigan-Huron and Erie's levels were getting closer.
Other explanations for the shrinking difference between the two systems include shifting weather patterns that sent increased precipitation over Lake Erie, as well as the ongoing, uneven rebound of the earth's crust from the last ice age; the land under the Georgian Bay region is rising in relation to areas to the south.
The Georgian Bay group that funded the study maintained the big problem appeared to be an ever-expanding river channel on the St. Clair.
"We've got something alarming going on here," said Rob Nairn, the engineer who was the report's chief author. "We're certain it's Michigan-Huron dropping."
A battle over inches
Muter's group launched a ferocious public relations campaign to compel the U.S. and Canadian governments to do their own study on the St. Clair. The International Joint Commission, the board that oversees U.S. and Canadian boundary waters issues, agreed to hire a team of scientists referred to as a "study board" to look into the St. Clair question.
In 2009 the study board released a report that concluded erosion since the 1960s dredging had unexpectedly lowered the lakes by about 3 to 5 inches, though it said the erosion was not ongoing. The report also blamed changing weather patterns and the earth's crust rebounding as two other significant factors behind what it said was a loss of 9 inches in the difference between Michigan-Huron and Erie from 1962 to 2006.
That meant the official acknowledged toll on Lakes Michigan and Huron tied to mining, dredging and unexpected erosion since the early '60s was up to 21 inches — nearly two feet.
Muter, a member of the study board's citizens advisory panel, refused to accept the study board's conclusion, sticking by her own group's reckoning that the water loss due to unexpected erosion was significantly greater than 3 to 5 inches, and that the erosion was ongoing.
Her refusal to acknowledge the study board's findings led some of its members to cast Muter and her supporters as a self-interested group bent on plugging the river at the expense of others.
"Ultimately, the crisis-mongers will look foolish when the lakes return to normal levels, albeit at somewhat different relative levels than in the past," study board spokesman John Nevin said in an email to the Journal Sentinel in the days after the study board's draft report was released. "That's why they want action now before Mother Nature proves them wrong."
A few months later, Muter was not appointed to a second term on the study board's citizen advisory panel.
"They did not like having someone there who knew enough to ask questions they did not want to answer," Muter now says.
The study board leaders said because an ice jam in the mid-1980s likely caused the erosion, the board was prohibited by the Joint Commission from recommending a restoration because the water loss was caused by natural factors.
Under pressure from Muter and others, the study board members scrapped the ice jam theory, acknowledging they actually had no idea what triggered the erosion. Study board leaders also could never produce the directive they claimed prohibited them from recommending a remediation project in the river.
The study board maintained that the situation did not warrant a St. Clair river fix because it would be expensive, could exacerbate flooding if high water returns and have negative impacts on downstream Lake Erie.
But the overwhelming message the Joint Commission heard in public hearings across the Great Lakes basin last year and in thousands of written comments is that some sort of St. Clair remediation must be explored.
That included a group of 3,000 property owners called Save Our Shoreline, which represents cottage owners in places such as Saginaw Bay on Lake Huron and Grand Traverse Bay on Lake Michigan.
The Joint Commission also received a letter last summer from three of the biggest, most influential environmental groups on Great Lakes issues — the National Wildlife Federation, the Alliance for the Great Lakes and Great Lakes United — all urging action.
"We believe that it is essential for the (Joint Commission) to investigate ecological restoration of the St. Clair River bottom in more depth than the Study Board did; the objective of further study should be to make up for dredging activities, especially the major activities that took place in the years of 1958 to 1962."
The Joint Commission also heard from an organization of 90 mayors representing more than 15 million residents in cities across the Great Lakes region that said it was "dissatisfied" with the study board's recommendation to do nothing about the water loss.
In April, the Joint Commission announced it would ask the U.S. and Canadian governments to explore a fix on the St. Clair.
"Although future water levels are uncertain, we cannot ignore the damage from record low water levels," said Joe Comuzzi, Canadian chair of the Joint Commission. "From Georgian Bay to Door County, from shoreline property owners to the shipping industry, we heard calls for action, and we urge governments to act in response to our recommendation."
The Joint Commission is advising that the U.S. and Canadian governments send more scientists back to the river to further evaluate flows and determine how to raise levels enough to compensate for the erosion and the 1960s dredging, something the study board previously estimated could be accomplished for somewhere between $30 million and $170 million.
Some believe that when they do, they will find that the erosion problem is bigger than claimed.
Roger Gauthier, a retired senior hydrologist for the Army Corps, says there was loads of good science in the study board's report. But Gauthier, who wasn't a member of the study board, doesn't agree with the 3- to 5-inch loss due to erosion that the board took to the public.
"There is still considerable doubt about the conclusions they've reached," said Gauthier, who is now working with Muter to push for a St. Clair restoration. "That was their interpretation. If you look at some of the modeling results, you could come up with a significantly higher number."
Army Corps employees have not publicly endorsed the study board's figure.
"I don't think I could say right now one way or the other if we agree or disagree if 3 to 5 inches is appropriate," said John Allis, chief of the Detroit district's office for hydraulics and hydrology.
Retired hydrologist Quinn, who worked on the original St. Clair restoration project for the Army Corps and was hired to do work for the St. Clair study board, is confident in the numbers the study board reached.
But he believes the government "has an obligation" to compensate for the water lost tied to the 1960s dredging.
The Army Corps is ready. Allis said his district this spring determined that the authorization for the 1960s St. Clair project is still valid, and his office has requested funding in its 2015 budget to begin dusting off those plans.
All this leaves Muter gratified, if a little worn out from a role of agitator she says she did not relish.
"As a public health nurse and grandmother of five kids? No," she said. "But as we collected more and more evidence, it just supported the need to stay on this. I could give up easily, and could have many times, but I feel this is a mainly finite resource and whatever I can do to protect and preserve it for future generations, I feel an obligation to do that."
A tough fix
As the executive director of the Great Lakes Commission, Tim Eder straddles two worlds. His job is to protect the ecological integrity of the lakes while squeezing as much out of them as is economically possible.
"I accept the fact that we are in a new era and the lakes are likely to continue to go lower," he said of increased evaporation on Michigan and Huron that scientists believe has been triggered by a bump in the region's air temperatures.
But he is conflicted on whether the answer is to restore St. Clair flows — and the lakes above them — to more closely match their historic levels. It could be good for navigation, for recreational boating, for property owners and for a region that has invested untold dollars in energy, sewage, drinking water and transportation systems that depend on the water levels not to move too far from their historic low — or high.
It could also be good for wetlands and the fish and birds and other life they sustain.
But he sees potential downsides, the most obvious of which is the lake levels could rise naturally. A river restoration could then exacerbate flooding and erosion in places such as Milwaukee and Chicago.
Holding back water might also harm downstream Lake Erie, and messing with the river bottom again could harm spawning beds for sturgeon in the St. Clair. Restoration advocates acknowledge both worries are real but insist that they could be addressed.
Eder also frets a control structure could lead to a dial being set on the lakes that would restrict them from their historic swing of about 3 feet above or below their long-term average, a flux critical for wetlands.
"People want the level of the lake to be six inches below the end of their dock," said Eder. "Well, that's not the way the system works."
He points to Lake Ontario, where lake levels have been controlled for more than a half century, since construction of hydroelectric dams on the St. Lawrence River.
In recent years, the U.S. and Canadian governments have tried to resuscitate Lake Ontario's withering wetlands with a plan to periodically hold back more water to raise lake levels, but the governments have suffered severe blowback from property owners accustomed to a relatively steady-state lake.
"I'm damn sure people need to recognize that these are dynamic systems that need to fluctuate and that we need to adapt," said Eder.
Lana Pollack, the U.S. chairman of the Joint Commission, declined to sign the letter from her commission recommending that the governments explore what it will take to bring lake levels up and instead wrote a dissent arguing that a St. Clair restoration offers only "false hope."
She fears the project will detract the public's attention from what she sees as the real issue — climate change causing increased evaporation. Her husband is Henry Pollack, a University of Michigan scientist and member of the team of climate researchers who shared a 2007 Nobel Prize with former Vice President Al Gore.
While Pollack's fellow commissioners have recommended exploring a system that could allow more water to leave Michigan and Huron in wet years, she said the big lakes are so slow to respond to long-term weather patterns that predicting when to let that water go or when to hold it back could prove impossible.
"Some of the very same people who deny the reality of climate change being caused by our energy choices are the same people who say, 'We want you to fix this,'" Lana Pollack said. "So on the one hand they say mankind is too small to impact Mother Nature — that forces of nature are much stronger than the impacts of man. Yet they somehow turn around and say, 'OK, governments: Put a plug in — engineer something, dredge something, dig out, blow up, modify.' They don't think man is too weak to engineer a fix, but they somehow say we're not responsible for the cause."
University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee meteorologist Paul Roebber agrees controlling flows out the St. Clair could be a complex job, but he believes it is one worth exploring, especially in an era when he expects increased evaporation and precipitation cycles to bring unprecedentedly big swings in water levels.
Roebber isn't worried about preserving fluctuations essential to wetlands health.
"It's unlikely to me that the problem is really going to be that we won't have variability in lake levels," he said. "It will be that we still have too much."
In addition to exploring a St. Clair restoration, the Joint Commission is recommending the U.S. and Canadian governments pursue a strategy of "adaptive management" to cope with the low levels.
"Adaptive management is a hard sell because by definition it says we don't know what it means," said Lana Pollack, a proponent of the strategy. "It doesn't start out with prescription. It doesn't say build this and dredge that and modify the other thing."
She says what it does say is to start paying attention to the changes that have already happened, learn everything you can to better predict changes likely to come, and be strategic in your decisions on how to cope.
"It is continually measuring, learning, adjusting," she said.
Some of this, of course, is already happening.
At Milwaukee's South Shore Yacht Club, commodore Dave Wehnes is pushing members' boats around the slips like giant chess pieces, trying to find the right match for the right boat so the big ones can buy an extra six inches of precious draft — sometimes the difference between being able to set sail for the summer, or not.
Freighters going through the locks at Sault Ste. Marie are leaving thousands of tons of cargo on the docks, just so they don't scrape bottom.
At the tip of the Door Peninsula, emergency dredging was ordered this winter so the ferry that is a lifeline to the outside world for Washington Island's 700 full-time residents could simply pull into its dock.
Just to the south at the public dock in the village of Ephraim, boat slips earlier this year weren't so much on the water as near it. The water was so low this winter that dredging crews were basically digging a canal, not a channel, out into Eagle Harbor.
The low water has been good business for Door County dredger Kahr, but that doesn't mean he's happy. He knows the work he does is expensive and at times environmentally messy. Then he thinks about how it's happening up and down Michigan and Huron's nearly 5,500 miles of shoreline.
Just chasing the water isn't his answer anymore. He says it is time to at least explore how we might actually catch it.
"We can't just keep dig, dig, digging," he said.