Traverse City News and Events

State Of The Bay: What 2022 Holds For Ice Cover, Water Levels, Invasive Species, And Boating

By Craig Manning | Feb. 10, 2022

Will Grand Traverse Bay freeze over this winter? How are local water levels trending? How about invasive species? And what are your chances of getting a marina slip for your boat this summer? The Ticker explored these questions to assess what 2022 might hold for Grand Traverse Bay.

Ice Cover

Some years, West Grand Traverse Bay freezes over completely, from the shores of Old Mission Peninsula to Power Island. Some years, the ice barely reaches 20 feet from shore.

According to Heather Smith, Baykeeper for the Watershed Center Grand Traverse Bay, a total freeze-over is still in play for 2022. Right now, Smith says roughly 20 percent of Lake Michigan has ice cover, which is “about average” for this time of year. That figure includes ice starting to form along the Grand Traverse Bay shoreline.

Smith tells The Ticker it’s typically a coin toss on whether the bay will freeze. A full freeze to Power Island happened in both 2018 and 2019, but not in 2020 or 2021. This year, Smith says warmer-than-average Lake Michigan water temperatures in the late fall had many speculating that 2022 would be another winter of limited ice cover for the lake. A recent stretch of cold weather has brought things more in line with a typical winter.

“If we freeze, we usually freeze in February,” Smith explains. “So, certainly, there’s still time. This recent bout of cold weather is helping that ice form. We need periods of cold weather and low wind so that ice can take form.”

The bay freezing over – and substantial ice cover throughout the Great Lakes – is something that has both pros and cons. On the one hand, Smith says ice cover stops excessive warming of the water, which in turn can prevent formation of algae blooms and reduce the risk of “shifts in food webs that affect which species can live in the Great Lakes.” On the other hand, more ice cover generally means less evaporation, which leads to higher water levels.

High Water

Speaking of high water, northern Michigan is still dealing with the effects of the 2018 and 2019 freezes, which led to near-historic water levels throughout the area in 2019 and 2020.

The good news, Smith says, is that the lakes seem to be trending in a downward direction. Water levels for Lake Michigan and Lake Huron – which, hydrologically, are considered one lake – are “still above the long-term average,” but are “certainly below where we were in 2021.” Where the levels end up by spring and summer depends on a variety of factors, including ice cover.

“There is a seasonal pattern that our lakes follow, in terms of water levels,” Smith explains. “We typically get our lowest levels in the winter, because a lot of evaporation happens when the water is warm compared to those colder late-fall and early-winter air masses moving across the lake. So, we usually see a decline in the winter, and we are predicted in Lake Michigan and Huron to fall another inch or two [before spring]. But my guess is that we’ll still be above that long-term average this summer.”

The receding waters will give Traverse City some of its beachfront back – and probably elicit a few sighs of relief, after years of worry about houses or roads tumbling into the bay.

What could come into focus as water levels drop, though, are consequences of the measures that many local property owners took to protect their homes from rising water. From sea walls to riprap, Smith says that most of the “hardened shoreline” techniques used to protect homes and other structures from shoreline erosion are effective, but also tend to create significant “ecological damages.” For instance, removing trees, shrubs, grasses, and other vegetation near the shoreline can destroy crucial aquatic habitat, potentially creating a domino effect throughout the Great Lakes food chain.

“If we continue to artificially harden our shorelines and remove vegetation at the land-water interface, we are going to degrade our aquatic habitat, and that's eventually going to cause more destruction in our Great Lakes,” Smith says. “And the Great Lakes are already facing so many challenges, from a changing climate to the introduction of invasive species. We have lots of development, lots of stormwater runoff, lots of sewer overflow. There are so many issues that, when we start removing the vegetation, we're adding another stressor to an already fragile system.”

Invasive Species

In terms of invasive species, the most existential threat is the potential arrival of Asian carp, which have been touted for decades as a danger. Asian carp were originally introduced in Arkansas some 40 years ago, and have been moving up the Mississippi River ever since.

In a new infrastructure plan, the United States Army Corps of Engineers has allocated $226 million toward the Brandon Road Lock and Dam project. That undertaking, planned near Joliet, Illinois, would utilize an electric barrier and other technological safeguards to keep Asian carp from moving up the Des Plaines River toward Chicago and Lake Michigan.

According to the Chicago Tribune, the Brandon Road project is expected to cost $858 million – including funding from both Michigan and Illinois – and take 6-8 years to build. Scientists worry that Asian carp, were they to reach Lake Michigan, would devastate plankton numbers and create massive food chain disruptions, thereby tanking the Great Lakes’ $7 billion fishing economy.


Whether it's fishing you enjoy or just cruising the waters of Grand Traverse Bay in a power boat, here’s hoping you already have plans for where to dock your boat this season. Local harbormasters say that, between folks relocating to Traverse City during the pandemic and a broader uptick in the popularity of boating, demand for dock slips is far outpacing the region’s supply.

For instance, the waitlist for a slip at Duncan L. Clinch Marina is 297 names long, according to Dockmaster Shane Dilloway. At East Bay Harbor Marina, Harbormaster Derek Beck puts his waitlist at “150-plus people.” Those two marinas only have 143 seasonal slips between them, all of which are currently booked for the upcoming season. Dilloway says wait times at Clinch range from 5-11 years, depending on slip size, while Becker indicates a (slightly) shorter wait time of “three-plus years” for East Bay Harbor.

You’ll face the same issues trying to find slips at other local marinas. The Elmwood Township Marina website indicates a wait time of 3-5 years for one of its seasonal slips, while John Roth, harbormaster for Bowers Harbor Yacht Club, says it’s rare for more than 1-2 of the marina’s 50 slips to open up in any given boating season.


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