May 13-14, 2013
Long-time residents of Pentwater, Michigan—population 847 as of the last census—have seen many changes over the years, from the array of windmills sited in their fruit orchards to tourists descending on what used to be a sleepy one-room schoolhouse village beside Michigan’s majestic freshwater ocean. Yet 10 o’clock coffee remains unchanged by the decades. A group of a couple dozen Pentwater men have been meeting at a local coffee shop six days a week since coffee was a dime a cup. ‘The Ladies’ started their own coffee club a few decades ago, but sit at a separate table at Good Stuffs, a local café.
“Come to 10 o’clock coffee to find out what’s going on. If not, come the next day,” Jack Patterson, owner of Patterson Marina, told us over a cup.
A major topic of conversation at the coffee shop recently has been survival. With Lake Michigan at the lowest water levels ever recorded this February, the channel that connects Pentwater Lake to ‘The Big Lake’ is becoming as shallow as 7.5 feet at points, making it challenging for larger boats to moor in town to eat, do their laundry, and patronize local businesses. Jack Witt’s Snug Harbor Marina—the other half of the ‘Pair of Jacks’ in Pentwater—has lost a few large-boat customers because they were afraid they wouldn’t be able to get through the Pentwater Channel to Lake Michigan come summer.
“Having an open channel there is really the lifeblood of the community,” said Dave Roseman, a retired surgeon who has taken a lead on solving the problem.
Confounding the unprecedentedly low Lake levels is the fact that the federal funding to clear Pentwater’s channel of sand has also run dry. Since 1960, Pentwater has relied on the Army Corps of Engineers to dredge the channel about every other year, but that service stopped in 2009 after the Corps changed Pentwater’s status from Safe Harbor to Recreational Harbor. Juanita Pierman, the Pentwater Village President, is very concerned about the sand-choked channel, and frustrated that the federal government has stopped providing what she sees as a basic service.
“Tell the Corps that it can’t leave these towns along the Lake in dire straights,” she said.
After the Corps funding fell through, several 10 o’clock coffee regulars joined Pierman’s Harbor Committee to figure out what the town could do. Soon after, Roseman found the software package, UnderSee Explorer, which he and Patterson hooked up to a boat to map the contours of Pentwater channel and publish the results on a website. The maps have given residents their first glimpse of the channel bottom that they rely on.
The explanations for the drop in Lake levels to 29 inches below its long-term average are as varied as the proposed solutions. Though everyone agrees on a simple equation—water in must equal water out, or lake levels will change—different groups emphasize different outflows as the culprit for the lost water. Many residents of Pentwater that we spoke with blamed the dredging of the St. Clair River in the 1960s, which quickened outflow and caused Lake Michigan to drop by 10 to 16 inches. Roseman has estimated that damming the river would cause Lakes Michigan and Huron to rise by five feet. Though no one advocates for a full dam, some members of the Harbor Committee have proposed that partial obstructions such as boulders and rock infill could slow the outflow enough to bring the Lakes back to desired levels. Other flow-slowing technologies called bladders are being considered for the St. Clair by the International Joint Commission—a U.S. and Canadian body that manages Great Lakes cooperation.
According to Pentwater resident Frode Maaseidvaag, the best solution may be “to slow down the outflow to the St. Clair and pray for snow and rain.”
Some scientists have pointed to climate change as a primary driver of lower water levels. Temperatures are expected to rise by between 2 and 4 degrees Celsius in the Great Lakes Basin, increasing evapotranspiration from the Lakes. However, Michigan Sea Grant, a research body administered through NOAA, has been reluctant to definitely connect the low Lake levels to climate change. The downward trend is not out of whack with historic periods of low Lake levels—unless it continues.
Though some Pentwater residents are confident that Lake Michigan will rebound, in the meantime, they are taking matters into their own hands. In 2012, residents resolved to fund the dredging themselves, raising half of the necessary $56,000 through private donations, including a silent auction at the Yacht Club, and the other half from the Village of Pentwater and the Lake Improvement Board. However, this makeshift funding mechanism is a band-aid source for a band-aid solution. Dredging, which can stir up contaminants and negatively impact lake ecosystems, may not be the best way to clear the channel anyway. According to Roseman, the past 50 years of dredging by the Corps have negated the need for innovation.
“In the past, it’s been to everyone’s advantage to have this cycle of dredging,” he said. “There has been no incentive for other approaches.”
Now that dredging is no longer a given, members of Pentwater’s Harbor Committee are brainstorming new solutions. The technologies they are trying range from something as simple as a fence to what Roseman calls “creative engineering.” The fence, designed by architects Tom Sturr and Gordon Rogers, would block the sand blowing into Pentwater Channel from North Beach. A portion of it installed by volunteers seemed to be successful, with small drifts forming on the inland side of the fence.
A bigger idea is to install a blower in the sandbar that builds up just outside the channel and use water pressure to clear the way. Take a ride out past ‘Flat Squirrel Bend’ and you can look at a prototype—a makeshift device made of pipe and an old trash pump—stored in Jack’s garage at Patterson’s Marina. After trying the prototype out last summer, Pierman said the group is trying to secure $400,000 in funding to design and install the larger version.
Though the outcome of the Pentwater Channel story is uncertain, 10 o’clock coffee always ends with ‘The Game.’ When the first person gets up to leave the café, they name a letter, A through Z. The Game proceeds around the table in alphabetical order until someone says the letter that matches the one written on a napkin and placed under a saltshaker by whoever arrived first to the coffee hour that morning. The unlucky matcher gets stuck with the $3 tip. The Game is like the Lake: a little different every day, but a steady presence over the years. It’s the essence of the reason people come to Pentwater, and stay.
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