In Towne Marina has been monitoring Lake Waconia water levels since crews started installing docks April 1. When the marina pulled out its final docks for the season late last month, the lake was down exactly one foot, which amounts to a loss of more than one billion gallons of water on the 3,000-plus acre lake, according to In Towne calculations.
It’s been that kind of year, with considerable water level drops on other lakes locally and state-wide as well during an extreme drought that started last fall.
While lower water levels challenged boat owners in launching and loading their watercraft and frustrated lakeshore property owners with exposed mudflats and shoreline plant growth, the water drop was not unprecedented and the conditions not unusual.
That’s the perspective of Carver County Water Management Organization (CCWMO) analysts, who have been tracking data on local lakes for some 20-40 years. In wading through the latest lake data, analyst Tim Sundby notes that while 2021 was a low-level year there have been several other years when water levels have receded further, notably an extended drought period in the late 1980s and other years between 2000 and 2006.
“The fact is, we have become used to higher water levels,” Sunday said, with some of the wettest years occurring since 2013. That included a record-setting rainfall in June 2014 that dumped 7-10 inches on the area which kept lake levels high all year, and 2019 which saw nearly 44 inches of rain, nearly a foot above average.
So, lake level fluctuations of 1-2 feet show up repeatedly on graphs charting the years.
Lake Burandt, which is connected to Lake Waconia, parallels the bigger lake, while nearby Reitz Lake, Piersons Lake and Eagle Lake at Baylor Park near Norwood Young America tend to fluctuate less. That’s because they are smaller and shallower to begin with, Sundby explains, “so there is less volume and not as much bounce.”
Lower lake levels are a natural part of water fluctuations and are actually a good thing for shorelines, notes Madeline Seveland, CCWMO education coordinator.
“They help heal shorelines and rejuvenate the lake,” she said.
Lower water levels allow more aquatic plants to establish in the lake which creates habitat for lake life, Seveland explains. The plants absorb phosphorus which helps filter water and exude dissolved oxygen that fish and other aquatic life depend on for survival. Plant root systems also absorb runoff and stabilize sediment both within and around lakes, reducing shoreline erosion and keeping the lakes clear.
However, low water levels also have the potential to increase phosphorous cycling, increase water temperatures and increase the chance for algal blooms as water becomes more stagnate, which can harm aquatic species and thwart recreation. So, low water level conditions are kind of a double-edged sword, especially on shallower lakes. Analysts are still evaluating water quality data from the past summer.
While lake observers might see a lot of newly exposed lakeshore this year, a good snowpack and some two-day steady fall rains like the area experienced two weeks ago could be enough to return lakes to their more normal levels, Sundby said.
In the meantime – and a bit ironically, as reported last week, Carver County commissioners recently approved a draft no-wake ordinance for lakes Waconia, Reitz, Piersons and Bavaria that would establish automatic no-wake restrictions when lake levels reach a designated high-water elevation for three consecutive days. Temporary measures have been enacted before to slow down boat speeds during high water to prevent property damage, ensure public safety and protect the lake and shoreline health.
The public comment period on the new ordinance ends Dec. 6. So, there’s a good chance the ordinance will be in place when local lakes breach their banks again.