Agencies issue forecasts for spring thaw

2014-03-09T19:15:00Z 2014-03-20T21:46:06Z Agencies issue forecasts for spring thawLauri Harvey Keagle lauri.keagle@nwi.com, (219) 852-4311 nwitimes.com

The third coldest and snowiest winter in Chicago history has clearly overstayed its welcome, but there is some good news coming from the miserable season.

Lake Michigan, which reached an all-time record low water level in January 2013, will be close to average levels thanks to the cold and snow, officials with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said last week.

Lake Michigan's water levels are expected to rise 9 to 14 inches above last year's levels by August, said Keith Kompoltowicz, chief of the watershed hydrology branch of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' Detroit District.

"If we were to see very wet conditions over the next six months ... a much larger seasonal rise is not out of the question," Kompoltowicz said.

Lake Michigan's snow water equivalent is 30 percent higher than it has been in the last decade, Kompoltowicz said. That will cause the lake to rise more in the spring.

On March 4, Lake Michigan was 92.45 percent ice-covered and all of the Great Lakes were more than 90 percent ice-covered, Kompoltowicz said.

George Leshkevich, physical scientist with the Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory in Ann Arbor, Mich., said the Great Lakes recorded the second-highest level of ice cover in history, falling just below the winter of 1979.

The bad news is the ice cover could cause extended cooler air temperatures well beyond winter, Leshkevich said.

"We could have cooler water temperatures into summer and fall if the ice cover lingers," Leshkevich said. "If we have a cooler summer with a lot of cloud cover, it could impact water levels for the next season."

If the ice in the rivers that feed the lakes become clogged, it could cause flooding.

"Across the southern part of the Great Lakes basin, there is a quite high threat of flooding," Kompoltowicz said. "That's something that we're very cognizant of. We're certainly paying attention to the weather the next few weeks."

Sam Lashley, senior meteorologist with the National Weather Service's Northern Indiana office in Syracuse, Ind., said the risk for serious flooding from the snow melt this spring is high.

"If it melts very slowly, that's ideal," Lashley said. "If it lasts into March and April, the odds of us getting inundated with heavy rains increases, and that coupled with the snow melt could cause some serious flooding."

Lashley addressed the Northwestern Indiana Regional Planning Commission's Environmental Management Policy Committee meeting last week.

"The majority of our record river flood events occur in winter and early spring and are often due to snow melt and heavy rainfall," Lashley said.

Lashley said the region "really dodged a bullet" for potential flooding in mid-February when an inch and a half of rain fell on top of the snowpack.

"We had so much snow and the ground was frozen, so the snow acted like a big sponge," Lashley said. "That water is still out there."

The February rains had an impact on the Kankakee River.

"We still saw moderate rises on the Kankakee (River)," Lashley said. "We could be looking at a long-term period of flooding in that area depending on how long it takes to get released."

The Indiana Department of Natural Resources is keeping an eye on smaller water bodies as well. The IDNR said the spring thaw could bring fish kills on shallow ponds and lakes in the region.

Most fish kills are caused by a lack of oxygen. Aquatic plants can only create oxygen when they have adequate sunlight.

When thick ice and snow cover shallow lakes and ponds, that sunlight is blocked and oxygen levels drop to dangerous levels for fish.

Officials with the IDNR said once the plants begin to die during winter, decomposition robs fish and other aquatic life of oxygen and little can be done to stop it.

Anyone witnessing a significant fish kill is asked to contact the district fishery biologist's office at (574) 896-3673.

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