Lakes across Minnesota are becoming free of ice earlier than usual this year, but boaters itching to get out on the water are now hoping for April showers.

That's because a moderate drought across the state has brought lakes to below-average levels this spring. As of Friday, the Twin Cities area is in its ninth-driest year in 145 years, with 92 percent of the state in a moderate drought.

It's a drastic change from last year's record-high water levels, which put a dramatic damper on boating thanks to a historic wet spring.

"If this was toward Memorial Day and the lake was like this, I'd be concerned," said Tom Jacob, owner of the Bay to Bay Boat Club on Lake Minnetonka. "I'm hoping for rain — just not like Noah's ark last year."

Precipitation is difficult to forecast, but state climatologist Greg Spoden said a few rainy weeks would help alleviate the state's drought.

"It's a wait-and-see," he said, adding that the weather whiplash between last year and this year's precipitation is actually typical of Minnesota, over time: "It's very common to go from very wet to very dry. It's very much a part of our climate."

On Friday, meteorologist Paul Douglas said the state needs 2 to 6 inches of rain to pull out of the drought. Until then, the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) is advising boaters to be aware of low water levels and the threat of running aground, especially in areas that might not be marked at the start of the season.

Another hazard, said Stan Linell, DNR boat and water safety manager, is boaters running into docks that may be placed farther out than usual because of the water line moving out. Until lakes reach normal conditions, boaters should slow down and wear a life jacket, he added, especially because water temperatures remain dangerously cold.

Spring is still young

On Lake Minnetonka, the Twin Cities' busiest lake, water levels were lower than average Friday, exposing more of the shoreline, but not concerning experts.

"It's still early in the spring," said Laura Domyancich with the Minnehaha Creek Watershed District.

Unlike high water levels, which can damage shorelines and cause erosion from boaters speeding by, the lower lake levels don't cause as many issues, though the Lake Minnetonka Conservation District, which regulates use of the lake, could put temporary low water variances on docks on the lake if needed.

Ice-out on the popular lake is expected to be declared this weekend — which would be about three weeks earlier than last year. While it will help some eager anglers and boaters get out on the water sooner, for marinas and boat rental businesses like Jacob's, which open in mid-May, the earlier ice-out will mean he can prepare his 23 boats sooner. When customers ask if the lower lake levels will affect boating this spring, Jacob said he tells them it's too early to be concerned.

"There are pretty rainy months coming up," he said. "It's so much better than last year."

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