The high water levels that had some residents on the Whitefish Chain requesting a drawdown in recent years has come in handy during this year's drought, acting as a buffer during a notoriously dry spring and summer.
"We've had elevated water levels for the last three to four years," Crow Wing County Soil and Water Conservation District Manager Melissa Barrick said. "What I've heard at least around the area is that we're getting down to the lower end, but we aren't in a super dry period like we've had in the past because of how high our water levels have been."
The impact of the drought so far does differ from lake to lake, with some more spring-fed lakes likely experiencing a more significant bounce in water levels. River-fed bodies of water have likely fared slightly better during these dry months.
" Lakes are a really dynamic system. Precipitation is a huge part of how that system works"
— Melissa Barrick.
"Lake levels that are really affected by groundwater probably have a higher amount of bounce to them when groundwater is their only source of water," Barrick said. "They could be more affected than, potentially, some of these lakes that have a river running through them like the Whitefish Chain. However, I would still say the shortage of water is a problem."
As a comparison to lakes on the Whitefish Chain, Barrick mentioned some popular spring-fed lakes like Roosevelt Lake, Blue Lake and Big Trout Lake.
"Lakes are a really dynamic system," Barrick said. "Precipitation is a huge part of how that system works."
Even so, those who visit the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Recreation Area near the Pine River Dam in Crosslake have likely noticed the change in depth on the river side of the dam, where much of the fishing pier is suspended over bare rocks instead of water. Even at the mouth of the dam the rocks are dry and visible above the river.
However, the water within the reservoir side of the dam has not yet dropped below the 6-inch band for summer operations.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers monitors the water elevation in the reservoir, and during the summer attempts to keep it below 1,229.57 feet and above 1,229.07 feet, a 6-inch difference. During this time of year the reservoir is at 1,229.32 feet.
"As of this morning (Monday, July 12) we are looking at 1,229.15 feet," Crosslake Operations Manager Corrine Hodapp said. "We're down from .32 to .15, so we're down but we still have room before we reach the bottom of our band of .07."
Hodapp said she has never seen a shortage like this in the 10 years she has been at the Cross Lake Recreation Area. The flow through the dam is often reduced to a "low release" of 30 cubic feet per second at some time during the late summer, typically August.
"We hit that early this year with lack of spring rains," Hodapp said.
" Lake levels that are really affected by groundwater probably have a higher amount of bounce to them when groundwater is their only source of water. They could be more affected than, potentially, some of these lakes that have a river running through them like the Whitefish Chain. However, I would still say the shortage of water is a problem."
— Melissa Barrick.
This year low release started June 10. If the elevation at the dam increases above that 6-inch band, the dam flow rate might be increased; but if it drops below the 6-inch band, the rate could be even more restricted, but never stopped completely.
"It would have severe environmental impacts," Hodapp said.
The low water levels are having an impact on recreation all over the area. Some lakefront property owners have found water levels too low to keep their boats or pontoons docked. On Bowen Lake near Backus, the water level has receded from the shoreline more than 2 feet. Kayakers on the Pine River are finding some landing locations have turned to sand or mud, and some shallow, rocky areas require extra care and even portaging.
"The current is a lot slower," said Warren Case, who has been kayaking or canoeing the Pine River since 1991. "People who do a lot of things like tubing aren't going to be doing tubing unless they plan on standing still. As for paddling, it's going to take a lot longer. Even if you don't get hung up on a sandbar it's going to take about double the time."
Case generally lands in the river starting at the rock dam outside of Crosslake.
"It's much shallower," Case said. "And so if you want to take a dip and cool off, it's a little harder to find a deep pool to swim in. The water is definitely warmer. And so that's affecting a few things. It's shallow, but you know, right now you could still get canoes and kayaks through as long as you know where the channels are.
"The sandbars move around every time there's high water. So you know, you have to take the trip a few times before you really know where you're going," he said. "So yesterday I had to drag my canoe two or three times, but most of the time we stayed just floating and paddling and that was fine."
Case warned that with much more exposed mud, bugs are thicker than usual.
Lake lovers might also find this to be a bad year for algae.
"Algae grow really well in warm temperatures," Barrick said. "We had a really hot spring early on. That can spur additional algae growth."
Some may have already mistaken an abundance of pollen in their lake as algae; however, without rain the frustrating allergens didn't sink into the water as fast as they might have. In addition, Barrick said there are already signs of an increase in cases of swimmer's itch, which thrives in shallower, warmer water.
Travis Grimler is a staff writer for the Pineandlakes Echo Journal weekly newspaper in Pequot Lakes/Pine River. He may be reached at 218-855-5853 or firstname.lastname@example.org.