Low lake levels may affect North Shore boating, beachgoing
John Shea, recreation supervisor for the Winnetka Park District, grabs up a water sample at Elder Park beach to test for e. coli May 11, 2012. Record low water levels in Lake Michigan could have an impact during the summer beach season. | Curtis Lehmkuhl~
Updated: February 28, 2013 9:11AM
WINNETKA — A variety of weather patterns combined with the severe drought the Midwest has seen may mean drastic changes for boaters and beachgoers in the north shore this summer.
During a presentation with Jon Shabica of Shabica & Associates, Inc. Feb. 21 it was revealed the water levels in Lake Michigan are down more than five feet since 1997.
“You can walk offshore in some spots 50 to 100 feet out and still be in waist-deep water,” Shabica said. “Since about June of last summer we’re about 17 inches down in lake level.”
The meeting was well attended, mostly by boaters, who had several questions about the impact the low lake levels may have on them getting their boats in and out of the water.
“One of the issues we have is a lot of the boat launching facilities were not designed to deal with a lake level like this,” Shabica said. “We anticipate we’ll have significant launching hazards with the low lake level.”
Shabica said the swimming boundaries at Elder Lane Beach currently are only at waist level. One option would be to move them further out, but that may put swimmers in higher traffic boating areas.
“Unfortunately with low lake levels is (an increase) in the amount of people who are going to get hurt,” Shabica said. “If you’re water skiing offshore you should be in at least eight feet of water.”
The lack of cold weather, as well as a very dry 2012, have contributed to the water loss. Typically ice that sits on top of the lake slows evaporation, but is noticeably absent with warmer temperatures.
“We need colder winters and more precipitation,” Shabica said.
Unique weather patterns, such as the effects of Hurricane Sandy, have also led to increased sand levels on area beaches. Shabica said winds from the northeast are ideal for erosion, but winds from Sandy came straight out of the north and pushed deep-water sand from Door County to the lake’s southernmost beaches.
Dredging and sand removal are costly, temporary fixes and Shabica said the Park District is looking at a long-term plan with regard to Winnetka’s beaches and the Lloyd boat launch.
Josh Mark of the Winnetka Yacht Club said recent high winds combined with low water levels he’s seen would affect launching even a small sailboat.
“It would be very difficult to get a Sunfish off the beach,” Mark said. “It was very frightening.”
Shabica collected email addresses and contact info from concerned sailors and pledged to keep them informed of any issues that may arise. He said one or two good storms might make the meeting “a moot point,” but wanted people to be ready.
“You’re going to have to note that your habits may need to change,” Shabica said. “We’re not going to open the ramp unless we can make it safe and usable. We’d like to have a minimum of three feet (of water). The ramp has a big question mark right now.”
If the Lloyd launch is unable to be used boaters may be directed to other launches in Evanston, Chicago, Waukegan or North Point Marina.