Low Long Lake water level dependent on Mother Nature
ALPENA — Bereft of runoff from melting snow, Long Lake’s water level is the lowest in recent memory.
The lake is feeling the effects of a warm and dry winter, and some property owners on the lake are concerned the low levels will impact their summer’s recreation, according to Gerald Fournier, Alpena County drain commissioner.
His office has fielded numerous calls this spring from worried home- and cottage-owners who wonder if the lake’s dam could be managed differently to better regulate the lake’s level, Fournier said.
He’s sympathetic to local residents who don’t like the current water level, and he and the Long Lake Improvement Association — which manages the county-owned dam — have done what they can to keep the water level as high as possible, the drain commissioner said.
Wooden dam gates — opened in fall to protect the dam from ice and closed in spring to raise lake levels — were closed weeks earlier than usual this year because of the lack of runoff.
Other than that, “there’s nothing I can do, unless I want to run out there with a bucket of water and throw it in the lake,” Fournier said.
Long Lake resident and association treasurer Bob Garant has been tracking lake levels in a small notebook since 2008. In that time, lake levels have fluctuated 30 inches between the highest high and the lowest low, according to Garant’s records.
A court ruling decades ago dictates that the lake can be kept at no higher than 650.89 feet above sea level. The dam is 650 feet above sea level, Garant said. Water above that level can spill over the top of the dam.
On Wednesday, Garant measured the lake at a little less than a foot and a half below the top of the dam.
Resident Jeff Dahlinger spoke with Adrian and Fournier on Wednesday, expressing concern about water levels. The low water wasn’t a problem for him, he said — he was more worried about the damage high water does to basements, landscaping, and other investments of lakeside homeowners.
In 2019, high water spread across residents’ lawns and lapped against their houses and decks. One neighbor, Garant said, could tell the water level by looking in the registers of his house.
For now, low levels are of most concern to residents, based on comments Fournier has heard. If water levels stay low, residents may have trouble getting boats off hoists or have to add docking to ensure their boats are in deep enough water.
Rain showers predicted over the next week may help matters. According to Garant, one inch of rain equals four inches of increased water level in the lake, at least in early spring, before greening plants begin to pull water from the ground.
Beaver dams in the river that feeds into the lake may be slowing water flow into the lake. Michigan Department of Natural Resources permission is required to remove beaver dams, Garant said.
Last year, the dam was closed on April 3, when the lake was about six inches below the allowable high water mark, according to Garant’s records.
This year, the dam was closed early, on March 22, when the ice had nearly melted. Water has risen four or five inches since then.
The gates couldn’t have been closed any sooner without risking damage to the dam, Fournier said.
Three of the dam’s five gates were recently replaced because of their age, and the other two are slated to be replaced soon.
Until all possibility of ice movement or expansion is gone, the gates aren’t safe to close, according to Bob Adrian, Alpena County Board of Commissioners chairman.
He’s owned a cottage on Long Lake for 25 years, and this is the lowest he’s seen the lake in spring, he said.
Still, the dam couldn’t have been closed earlier in hopes of upping the water level.
In the past, expanding ice has broken rock and moved cement walls along the perimeter of the lake and could do the same to the dam if it is closed prematurely. If ice is shoved against the gates — which are safely raised above the water in winter — it could damage or destroy them, Adrian said.
Replacing the dam would be a multi-million-dollar job, Adrian said.
Garant said local residents would be wise to endure varying lake levels if keeps ice from harming the gates, referencing a disastrous dam failure near Midland in 2020.
“We don’t want none of that,” Garant said. “That’s why we protect our dam.”