Mild winter brings broad beaches

Lack of precipitation, ice cover contribute to lower lake level, more shoreline but officials say Port’s north beach will remain closed until experts say it’s safe to tackle mudslides

THE SEAWEED-COVERED branches of a fallen tree on the expansive Lake Michigan beach in the Town of Port Washington indicate that it was at the water’s edge not long ago. But now the receding lake has left it high and dry. Photo by Bill Schanen IV
Ozaukee Press staff

This winter’s mild weather is a blessing for those who love to walk the lakeshore in Port Washington.

Lake levels are dropping, and as they do the city’s beaches are increasing to widths not seen in years.

Lake Michigan is seven to eight inches lower than it was this time last year, Keith Kompoltowicz, watershed hydrology chief for the Detroit district of the United States Army Corps of Engineers, said.

While that’s four to five inches higher than the long-term average, it’s significantly lower than in the recent past, Kompoltowicz said.

“You think back to 2020, we were at record high levels,” he said.

But even though the beaches are wider, public access to the north beach has been compromised for the last two years after portions of the bluff collapsed.

Two years ago when a portion of the bluff collapsed, the beach was effectively closed. Last year, another area of the bluff closed and the city decided to close the beach after consulting with a geotechnical engineer at Miller Engineers and Scientists in Sheboygan about the stability of the bluff.

City Administrator Tony Brown said at the time, “If the decision is to potentially put citizens in harm’s way or keep them safe, the city’s always going to choose to keep them safe. Until something is decided upon and completed, it would be a public safety concern if we opened it.”

Public Works Director Rob Vanden Noven last week reiterated the city’s stance, saying that until the consultants give the nod the beach will remain closed.

“As of now, the recommendation of our consultant has not changed,” he said.

Recreation Director Tyler Mentzel noted the city is walking a fine line between public safety and the desire of residents to enjoy the beaches.

“From a recreation standpoint, it certainly would be a bummer that people may not be able to (get to the beach),” he said. “But it’s certainly a tricky situation.”

February is when lake levels generally reach their lowest levels, Kompoltowicz said, and projections are that Lake Michigan will drop another inch or more by then.

Lake levels rise throughout the spring due to precipitation and melting snow, peak in July and begin their annual decline in fall.

But this year, lake levels may not rise as much as in the past, he said.

“We haven’t had a typical Great Lakes winter,” he said.

There hasn’t been a lot of snow falling in the lake or accumulating on land, he said, which means there likely won’t be a significant amount of melting done in spring.

Instead of the typical 12-inch rise in lake levels by June, Kompoltowicz said the Army Corps is projecting an increase of only about eight inches.

But, he warned, “We’ve seen very quick pattern shifts in the past. Things can quickly change.”

Roy Eckberg, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Green Bay, noted that snowfall in the region this season has been about 17.3 inches, compared to the normal 23.6 inches.

Rainfall throughout the basin last fall was close to average, Eckberg said, and it was spread out, so runoff hasn’t been as much of an issue.

And because the area has been experiencing drought conditions, more of the rain soaked into the ground rather than running off it.

Another factor leading to this year’s falling lake levels is the fact there hasn’t been much ice cover on the lake, Kompoltowicz said.

“We haven’t seen much ice at all,” he said, and that can lead to greater evaporation off the lake as frigid air comes in contact with the water.

However, Kompoltowicz said, since the weather has been relatively mild, the rate of evaporation isn’t as high as it would be were the weather colder.

“Just because you have an open lake doesn’t mean you have rampant evaporation,” he said. “We really haven’t seen long  stretches of the frigid air that leads to evaporation.”

The U.S. National Ice Center said ice has been slow to form this year, with only 3% of the lake covered in recent weeks. That’s a new record low and far below the average of 18%.

Even though lake levels are declining, Kompoltowicz noted that they are still above the long term average and significantly higher than the record lows in 2013.

While there were wide beaches in 2013, Kompoltowicz said there were significant concerns about the ability of commercial vessels to access harbors.

Higher lake levels, in contrast, provide plenty of room for boats on the lake but often lead to more erosion along the shore and prompt lakefront property owners to take measures to protect their homes.

“Every one of them would have a different idea of the ideal lake level,” he said.


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Ozaukee Press

Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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Port Washington, WI 53074
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