Rapid shrinking of White Bear Lake has left a popular swimming beach high and dry, forcing Ramsey County to close it for the summer.

Water has receded as far as half a football field at the beach in White Bear Lake County Park and now is within six feet of a dangerous drop-off, Jody Youngers, director of Ramsey County's park services and operations, said Friday.

The beach, on the north side of White Bear Lake near the downtown area of the city, won't have lifeguards this summer but the county wants to install an emergency phone there, Youngers said.

The level of White Bear Lake is nearly four feet below normal this spring because of a lack of rain and because the lake has an unusually small watershed, said Harland Hiemstra, spokesman for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. Much of the east metro, including the lake, remains in "moderate" drought status, he said.

Youngers said it's unlikely the beach, once known as Ramsey Beach, could reopen this year even with significant rainfall. When the lake is at normal levels, the lake bottom slopes down very gradually for about 150 feet before it hits the drop-off, which is a six-to-eight foot drop.

"It has always been historically a very shallow beach," she said.

Records kept since 1901 show fluctuations of more than seven feet in the lake's level, Hiemstra said. The highest point was in May 1906, the lowest in February 1991. And although the lake is shallow in some areas, it's much deeper in others. The maximum depth, he said, is 83 feet.

It could take four or five years for White Bear Lake to rise to normal levels, judging from the lake's historical ebb and flow, Hiemstra said. The lake's watershed is only about twice as large as its ordinary surface area of 2,531 acres. Most lakes would have a watershed at least five times as large, he said.

"It is pretty much nature at work," he said. "It's a natural cycle. White Bear Lake will come back."

The falling lake level has its advantages, Hiemstra said. Low water tends to rejuvenate aquatic plants, consolidate sediments and help anglers succeed at fishing, he said.

White Bear Lake will host Minnesota's walleye fishing opener May 9.

Youngers said the beach has an adjacent boat ramp that opened Friday and will stay open until July 6. Then it will be closed for reconstruction of the parking lot, which will include expansion of the boat launch to two lanes.

"It's a very popular beach," she said. "On a nice 80-degree day we're probably looking, without exaggeration, at 500 people."

Kevin Giles • 612-673-4432