White Bear Lake, minus the lake

  • Article by: EMMA L. CAREW , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 8, 2010 - 5:04 PM

White Bear Lake has hit historically low water levels this summer, and the city wants to dispel rumors about why.

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Owners of lakefront property on White Bear Lake are wondering what happened to their beaches. The water level has receded more than 100 feet at Bellaire Beach.

Photo: David Joles, Star Tribune

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Ethel Griggs, who has lived along the southeastern shore of White Bear Lake for about 25 years, is among those who are trapped behind sandbars, unable to jump in her boat and go for a cruise around the lake.

Griggs said her property used to have between 20 and 30 feet of sandy shoreline and a nice area for swimming. As the lake has dropped more than 2 feet in two summers, the shoreline has grown by a couple hundred feet and become overrun with weeds and grasses. The water beyond is about 2 feet deep and looks swampy, she said.

Griggs is not alone. Record low lake levels have redefined "lakefront" property for some residents along the metro area's second-largest lake.

Mark Sather, city administrator, has heard almost every single rumor about what's causing the low lake levels. Among the hundreds of rumors and complaints he's heard this summer:

• We need more rain.

• The water's being pumped away by housing developments or other cities.

• Let's just open up the dam.

"As they say, it's the talk of the town," he said.

Oh, and there's no dam.

The city is ready for the rumors to stop. On Thursday, the city will host a panel of speakers from the state Department of Natural Resources and the Rice Creek Watershed District to discuss the low lake levels and the reasons.

At last reading, the lake level was at a record low 919.7 feet above sea level, according to data from the DNR. That's nearly 6 feet below this decade's high, recorded in 2003. The Ordinary High Water Level (OHW), or the point at which the lake begins to overflow, is 924.89 feet.

What was once a sparkling lake -- one of the cleanest in the metro, city officials say -- now has ragged patches of sand creeping hundreds of feet outward as the water levels have steadily decreased in recent years.

The low water levels have created ripe conditions for weeds such as Eurasian water milfoil to proliferate, until the White Bear Lake Conservation District treated areas along the shoreline and interior of the lake in August.

"What we've been saying since about 2008 is it's precipitation driving White Bear Lake," said Craig Wills, area DNR hydrologist. "The lake will come up faster with above-average rain."

In 2008, when the city and DNR first began hearing complaints about the lake, the water elevation was about 922.5 feet. For the most part, it has fallen steadily since.

Sather said the lake has a very small watershed, which means the water level is very sensitive to fluctuations in precipitation.

Storms miss White Bear Lake

And although the entire metro area has had a rainy summer, Sather said, many of the largest storms missed White Bear Lake entirely.

"We need a direct hit for that water to get into the lake," he said, because there are no streams or tributaries that flow into the lake.

Diane Cooper, a hydrologist at the National Weather Service, confirmed Sather's statement about missed rainfall. In the previous 180 days, rainfall in most of the metro area has ranged from normal (20-25 inches) to slightly above, Cooper said. In the area around White Bear Lake, rainfall has been 2 to 4 inches below normal.

Still, with the lake about 5 feet below the ordinary high water level, Wills said it will take more than a good hard rain for the water levels to rise significantly.

"It might be three years before the lake starts responding," he said. "The lake's not going to bounce up as fast as everybody would like."

Sather said the city's revenues at the town boat launch and marinas are down by about 40 percent.

The lake's largest beach, White Bear Beach, has been closed by Ramsey County the past two summers because the shoreline has extended so far that the swimming area would include a dangerous drop-off zone.

Jason Brown, who runs White Bear Boat Works and also manages a marina for the city, said he's seen rentals dip slightly, but still filled about 85 percent of the marina's slips.

His retail and repair business is seeing an uptick, though, because boats are more easily damaged with the low water levels, Brown said.

The city has heard complaints of residents in shallow areas unable to launch their boats, something Janet Dehnert, owner of Tally's Dockside has welcomed. She and her husband, Keith, rent 42 slips.

Dehnert said some of their slip rentals this summer have been by homeowners who couldn't use their own access points because their shoreline is too far out.

Tally's also rents pontoons, fishing boats, kayaks and canoes, she said, which have seen about a 5 percent increase in 2010.

Both Dehnert and Griggs, from behind her sandbar, said they plan to attend the city's panel this week.

"We just need more summers like this, with lots of rain," Griggs said. "I think that's going to be our salvation here."

Emma L. Carew • 651-735-9749

  • related content

  • Graphic: White Bear Lake levels hit historic lows

    Wednesday September 8, 2010

    Data from the Department of Natural Resources show White Bear Lake's downward trend since 2003....

  • Bellaire Beach on White Bear Lake.

  • IF YOU GO:

    WHAT: The Department of Natural Resources and the Rice Creek Watershed District hold a public forum to discuss the levels of White Bear Lake.

    WHEN: 7 p.m. Thursday

    WHERE: White Bear Lake City Hall, 4701 Hwy. 61.

    TUNE IN: The forum will be broadcast live on Channel 16.

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