Low Water Levels On The Huron River Impacting Recreation And Tied To Climate Change

Jun 18, 2021

Huron River at North Territorial Road, Hudson Mills Metropark
Credit Huron River Watershed Council / hrwc.org

Water levels on the Huron River are well below where they have been the last few summers at this time. Lisa Barry talks with a planner from the Huron River Watershed Council, Daniel Brown, about river conditions and the reasons behind them.


HRWC staff and volunteers assessing a dry creek.
Credit Huron River Watershed Council / hrwc.org

Lisa Barry: With the warmer weather and the easing of COVID restrictions, we're getting out and about more and many people are spending time on local waterways. This is Lisa Barry and one of the more popular in our area is the Huron River. But things are a bit different on the river this summer. We're joined now by Huron River Watershed Council planner Daniel Brown to talk about what's going on. Welcome, Daniel. Thanks for joining us.

Daniel Brown: Yeah, thank you, Lisa.

Lisa Barry: So we're hearing about water levels on the Huron River. Can you tell us what's happening?

Daniel Brown: Yeah. So water levels this year are significantly below normal and significantly below where they've been for the past two years. So what we're seeing is that people, as they're going out exploring the river, as they're interacting with the river, the waterways, the connected lakes, they're they're finding water levels that are significantly below maybe what they have expected based on past experience of the past few years.

Lisa Barry: I'm hearing something about two to three feet below in some places.

HRWC planner Daniel Brown
Credit Huron River Watershed Council / hrwc.org

Daniel Brown: Yeah. Over the past month or so in scouting out different parts of the river and different lakes, we've had a lot of reports of things like stranded pontoon boat, you know, floating docks that are just basically sitting on exposed bottom lands and in places we're seeing, yeah, water levels that are maybe about two or three feet below where they were last year. And remembering that water levels were quite high last year. But they're still significantly below where we would expect them to be at this time of year normally.

Lisa Barry: So you take your kayak out or your tube out. And what are you hearing from people trying to recreate on the Huron River this summer?

Daniel Brown: Yeah, in many places there is a much different. So where you can find, you know, a nice big lake. So Proud Lakes one area where I was just touring a few weeks ago. And, you know, water levels up there are pretty normal compared to most years. You know, the water level in the upper part of the watershed is less, less variable throughout the season. But in other parts of the river, particularly in areas where, you know, the river corridor is narrower or shallower in general, we know that people are having a lot of trouble getting through. So one particular stretch that we know has been really problematic is between Island Lakes State Recreation Area and Huron Meadows recreation area or the chain of lakes area. We're seeing really shallow waters through there. And that's also an area that it was this really pristine natural stretch of river. And we manage it for wildlife habitat so we don't remove a lot of the woody debris or have others remove, you know, a lot of the woody debris of fallen trees because it's good for fish and insects and other things like that. But because of the low water levels and because of that really, you know, natural management of the river, it's it's pretty tough to get through that particular stretch of river. But in other places, you look farther down. If you look closer to Ann Arbor, certainly, you know, lakes that are behind a dam like Fort Lake or Bellville Lake or, you know, the Flatrock empowerment, you know, water levels are going to be pretty consistent to past years in those areas. So there's still places to paddling. But it is certainly affecting, you know, where people can get through maybe the type of paddle or trip that they had planned. So they're having to adjust plans to to account for the changing water levels from the past few years.

Lisa Barry: So, the impact of this is not just on the river, but the lakes that it feeds.

Daniel Brown: Yeah. So in especially where we're seeing where we see connected lakes. So either lakes that feed the Huron River or, you know, lakes that are, you know, basically offset from the here on river on the chain of lakes, we are getting reports potentially in the sort of connected channels on those lakes that water levels are also low there. You know, it's all it's all part of the same hydrology. So, you know, water levels on all those connected lakes and streams are also quite low. And that's actually where we're seeing the biggest impacts to a lot of homeowners where, you know, water levels are actually dropping away from seawalls that they had installed during high water level periods. You know, pontoon boats that are anchored to docks are now sitting on the exposed bottom lines. So they're neighborhoods that are looking at options for dredging out those channels or, you know, dredging in front of their homes so that they can get their boat out on the water. Of course, we don't recommend that because, you know, this is a pretty extraordinary year. These are dry, low water levels and, you know, dredging in some of those other steps that people, you know, might want to. At this point, that can damage the environment and then once the water levels come back up, that that damage has been done and is, you know, damaged the ecosystem going forward. So this isn't a great year to make significant plans around infrastructure around because it is just such an unusual year and water levels are so low.

Lisa Barry: Did I ask that question incorrectly? Do rivers feed lakes or lakes feed rivers?

Daniel Brown: Yeah, just generally in the Huron, most of the connected lakes that we see know those are flowing into the Huron River. And in other cases there are impoundments on the main stem of the river. So, you know, good examples of that are, you know, Caint Lake, Berten Pond, Guilford Lake and the Flatrock and Power. And all of those are ponds that are actually created by dams that are on the main stem of the river. So it's really interchangeable whether or not you call those a lake or a part of the river. But certainly the conditions that you find in those areas can can be very different from other parts of a natural flowing river because the water levels are essentially managed by the dams in those places. But in other parts of the watershed, like particularly through like I think the state recreation area, you know, the chain of lakes through the southern part of Livingston County, we have other connected lakes and creeks. And in those cases, you know, those water bodies are feeding into the Huron River.

Lisa Barry: Daniel Brown is a planner with the Huron River Watershed Council. So I guess we have to ask, what is causing these low water levels?

Daniel Brown: You know, so this year, it's entirely driven by this long term sustained weather pattern. So we're in both a short and long term drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. What climatologists have been telling us for many years is that we should expect these big swing, you know, this these big swings and more variability from year to year and over multi-year periods between extremely dry conditions to extremely wet conditions, to extremely dry conditions. You know, if we go back, you know, 2013, 2014, remember, lake levels on the Great Lakes were extremely low. You know, we've just gone through this period of extremely high water levels where we're seeing erosion and impacts that. And now we're back into a year with drought conditions and low water levels on many in the lakes and waterways. And there's many different factors in climate that are playing into that. But essentially, you know, with warmer weather, we see more evaporation, but we also see more precipitation over the Great Lakes region. And as you pull on one end or the other of those different factors you can get, these periods of extreme dry conditions were extremely wet conditions. And you increase the chance that you're going to have, you know, a really variable period between those conditions. And that's similar to what we've seen over the last several years with these big swings between wet and dry. So this is this unfortunately looks like something that we can expect more of in terms of this this high variability between wet and dry years. And of course, that makes it really difficult to plan if your own waterfront or if you're trying to figure out how to recreate on on different water bodies in Michigan. That makes it really difficult to plan long term for the future, for, you know, what your home needs or what your community needs or you know where you want to spend your time

Lisa Barry: In the last minute we have left. And Dan, we appreciate all the information you're sharing with us. And I don't want to get political and I don't want to get controversial. But for those who may not be fully aware in under a minute now, what impacts the climate? What are we as human beings or what's happening that is having an impact?

Daniel Brown: Yeah, overwhelmingly, the cause of all the climate change that we talk about is the burning of fossil fuels for energy. And so it's burning of coal, gasoline, oil for energy. So it is human activity and it's primarily humans burning of fossil fuels that are contributing to climate change. And in recent years, you know, many scientists have looked at, you know, how to attribute natural and human caused factors to changes in climate. And generally what they've found is that if you took human activity and human effects out of the equation, so if we weren't burning gas, we weren't burning fossil fuels, we actually think that the climate would have cooled slightly since the industrial revolution. And of course, it hasn't done that. We've warmed pretty significantly in pretty rapid. And unless we reduce emissions, unless we keep fossil fuels in the ground, reduce carbon emissions, we can expect this warming trend to continue and that will drive many of these effects that we're seeing in Michigan with variability.

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— Lisa Barry is the host of All Things Considered on WEMU. You can contact Lisa at 734.487.3363, on Twitter @LisaWEMU, or email her at lbarryma@emich.edu