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Lake Level Charts & Data

Higgins Lake Level — Data Gathering:

Every fifteen minutes a submerged pressure gauge in Higgins Lake reads the pressure due to the height of water/ice above the gauge, converts this pressure to a lake level reading and sends the data to a United States Geologic Survey (USGS) office.  Click on the link below to visit the USGS website for Higgins Lake.

Lake level data for any period of time can be obtained by entering the desired dates in the date fields on the USGS website.  All of the lake level data used to create the series of charts in the list, below, came from the USGS website.  In addition, the information on how much of the dam is open for flow came from the monthly Cut River Dam Reports as prepared by the County Commissioners Office.

Glacial Lake Roscommon:

The link, below, is to an article published in the Houghton Lake Resorter on “Glacial Lake Roscommon” that appeared in the July 5, 2018 issue of the newspaper. It documents the existence of a very large lake, encompassing Higgins Lake, Houghton Lake and Lake St. Helen, that was created approx. 20,000 years ago, as the last Ice Age waned in Michigan.  A team of scientists from MSU, Univ. of Cincinnati, Univ. of Illinois and North Dakota State Univ. have theorized this ancient lake, at one time, may have covered an area twice the size of Roscommon County.

1921 Michigan Geological & Biological Survey — Higgins Lake, et al:

Below is a link to a 1921 report published by the State of Michigan Geological and Biological Survey. The discussion of Higgins Lake begins on page 18 of this report and it describes the geological formation of the lake, providing factual information on the lake’s level over the thousands of years after the Ice Age ended. As the article states, at one point in time many thousands of years ago, the lake level stabilized at 16 feet above today’s level. Several thousands of years later, as the ground continued to rebound without the weight of a mile or more thickness of ice covering it, the lake level stabilized again at about 8 feet above today’s level.  After several thousand more years, it stabilized at 2 feet above today’s level for a period of time before it eventually stabilized at today’s level.  When reading about Higgins Lake in this nearly 100 year old report, familiar landmarks mentioned therein had different names assigned to them, as follows:

  1. Chicago Point is now known as Point Detroit
  2. State Forest is an area of the lake in Crawford County
  3. Saginaw Grounds/Bay City Grounds area is now known as Lakeside/Cottage Grove/Pinewood
  4. Cole is an area located on the north end of what is now known as Pine Bluffs
  5. Parker Point, former site of the old Parkers Hotel, is now known as Flag Point
  6. Highland Point now includes an area now known as Almeda Beach

The existence of credible scientific information such as the above article on Glacial Lake Roscommon and the Michigan Geological Survey Report of 1921 shed new light on the oft-debated topic of: “What is the natural level of Higgins Lake?”

Lake Level Charts — 2007 to Date:

Listed below are links to charts of the USGS gauge height data for each calendar year, beginning in 2007.  Charts for future years will be added as the data becomes available.  The charts show the USGS lake gauge height (blue line), the legal lake levels (red line) per the 1926 and 1982 Circuit Court Orders and, beginning in June of 2008, the percent of the Cut River dam width open for flow (green line) per the Roscommon County Board of Commissioners data.

Note: the Cut River dam can never be 100% closed due to the unregulated 4.75 ft. wide opening in it mandated by the Dept. of Fisheries Div. of the DNR.  Therefore, 7% of the dam’s width is open for flow at all times.

Also shown below are two additional charts.  The first chart, “Seasonal Lake Levels vs. Legal (summer) Level – 1979 to Date”, covers the period from 1979 to date and shows the average amount (in inches) that the lake was either above or below the Legal (summer) Level as set by the Circuit Court in 1926.  For each year, two data points are shown: the blue dot represents the average daily lake level for the period from April 15th through October 31st and the red dot represents the average daily lake level during the prime recreational season of June 1st through September 30th.  On this chart is a straight red trend line that is a calculated mathematical linear regression done automatically by MS Excel on the raw data.  The purpose for having this line is to show the trend over time that the summer lake levels have been experiencing (decreasing). The second chart, “USGS Average Gauge Height – 1978 to Date”, shows the average yearly gauge height of the lake for the period from 1978 to date.  This chart also has a straight trend line, black in color, calculated by MS Excel, showing the trend in the yearly average lake levels over time (again, decreasing).  Both of these charts will be updated on a regular basis as newer data becomes available.

Lake Level Charts Prior to the 2007 Dam Reconstruction:

The 2007 reconstruction of the Cut River Dam added two additional flop gates (to the existing single flop gate and three stop log gates) and the 4.75 ft. wide unregulated opening.  The year 1978 was the first year the USGS published lake level data for Higgins Lake, starting in October of that year:

Lake Level Attrition, Winter Drawdown and Ice-Over/Ice-Out Information  – 2007 to Date:

The link below contains a chart showing key lake level information for each year since the dam was reconstructed in 2007 with the addition of a second and third flop gate to facilitate drawing the level down when required, and the 4.75 ft. unregulated opening.  This data includes: the date the dam was first opened in the fall to commence the winter drawdown, how much of the Court Ordered draw down was achieved, the Ice-Over and Ice-Out dates, etc.  There is quite a bit of data here and we beg the reader’s forgiveness for the amount of information contained in this chart.

Please review the footnotes at the bottom of the Lake Level Attrition Chart.  They contain key information to help in understanding the information that is presented.  Also, because the lake gauge height and the Court Order(s) use both “inches” and “feet” when discussing the lake level and winter drawdown amounts, the column headings in this chart are defined in either inches or feet, where appropriate.  A detailed explanation of the data in this chart could be presented but it is likely not necessary to do so as careful scrutiny by the reader should be sufficient.

Notice in the earlier years the dam was opened to commence the 6 inch winter drawdown as early as Sept 5 which is inconsistent with the 1982 Court Order, posted elsewhere on this website, which stipulates that the lowering of the lake level for the annual winter drawdown is to commence “…on or about November 1 of each year…” (note: the Court Order for the 5 year trial 9 inch winter drawdown, starting in the 2009CY and expiring after the 2013CY, permitted the winter drawdown to begin as early as Sept 15).  In the summer of 2014, with the expiration of the trial 9 inch winter drawdown, the County Commissioners requested the Assistant Prosecutor’s interpretation of the language of the 1926 and 1982 Court Orders as to when the drawdown may begin.  It was concluded the Court Orders state the County is to open the flop gates to begin the drawdown on or about November 1; not that the 6 inch drawdown is to be achieved by November 1.  This clarification of the drawdown timing language in the Court Order by the Assistant Prosecutor was critical in establishing a clear and consistent direction to the County Commissioners in their management of the dam for each upcoming winter season.  It’s interesting to note in the winter of 2014/15 through the winter of 2017/18, the amount of the drawdown achieved the full 6 inches despite the later dam opening date of November 1.  In 2014 in particular, the lake level was only 0.84 inches below the Legal (summer) Level on Oct 29.  This has been the highest lake level immediately prior to the winter drawdown from 2007 to date, yet more than 6 inches of total drawdown was still accomplished by virtue of the reconstructed dam’s two additional flop gates.

It must be emphasized, as stated in the footnote, that for data of this type to be statistically valid and meaningful it requires a study period of more than just a few years – several decades is suggested.  The longer the study period, the more relevant and useful the data will become.  And more importantly, a consistent dam operating policy must be followed throughout the years.

Lake Level Decline During the Prime Summer Period — 2007 to Date:

It has been historically documented that the lake level drops during the mid to late summer months each year.  There are a variety of reasons for this: evaporation due to sun intensity, the amount of rainfall, variability of underground water in-flow as well as the 4.75 ft. unregulated opening in the Cut River Dam that is open for flow year-round.  The following link contains an analysis of the USGS Lake Level Data between June 15th and Sept 15th, the prime summer recreational period, for the years since the last major dam reconstruction in 2007, when the 4.75 ft. unregulated opening was incorporated in it per a mandate by the DNR.

The chart on the first page of the above link summarizes the time-weighted amount the lake level was either above or below the Legal (summer) Level from June 15 and September 15 for each year since 2007.  These time-weighted amounts are depicted by the green and red shaded areas on the graphs for each calendar year that follow the summary chart page.  By measuring these green and red areas (using a mechanical device known as a Compensating Polar Planimeter) the time-weighted amounts that the lake level is either above or below the Legal (summer) Level can be evaluated and compared.  This analysis shows that, on average since 2007, the time-weighted lake level has been 1.) below the Legal (summer) Level an average of nearly 2 inches 81% of the time and 2.) above the Legal (summer) Level an average of 2/3 of an inch 21% of the time.

Another important point in this analysis is the amount of time the dam is fully closed each year between June 15th and Sept 15th, depicted by the green line on each year’s chart.  With the exception of just a handful of days in many, but not all, of these years, the dam has remained closed – except for the 4.75 ft. unregulated opening.  In 2009, 2013, 2016 and 2018 the dam was never opened during the June 15th to Sept 15th  period.

In spite of the County’s best efforts to maintain the lake as close as possible to Legal (summer) Level, the 4.75 ft. unregulated opening plays a significant role in preventing this from happening.  The “bottom line” is that the dam as currently configured, without any means to restrict outflow through the unregulated 4.75 ft. opening, is not capable of maintaining the lake level consistent with the existing Court Order.  Would a restrictor plate in the unregulated 4.75 ft. opening help to maintain the Legal (summer) Level from Ice Out to Nov 1st as defined by the Court Order?  In the estimation of the Spicer Group, the Engineering firm that analyzed the existing dam configuration in 2010, a properly designed restrictor plate in the 4.75 ft. unregulated opening could reduce the amount the lake level drops in the late summer/fall by as much as two inches.  When an inch or so of water can make the difference in getting one’s boat off the hoist, a one or two inch improvement is more than significant.