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Lowering Lake Orion



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September 26, 2012 - You may have noticed the level of Lake Orion declining over recent days.

With approval from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), Lake Orion Village officials have been slowly reducing the amount of water in the lake since September 10. Aimed at a total reduction of three feet, Village managers have been drawing down the lake by about an inch per day.

The lake reduction will end and it will be allowed to refill naturally the first of November after inspections and necessary repairs are made.

The purpose of the drawdown is to allow space and time for the public and village officials to conduct inspection and repairs. Village manager Paul Zelenak explained the activity as part of normal Lake Orion management.

"Each year we lower it about a foot to winter levels, but every five years we drop it a total of 36 inches so that people can do maintenance and work on their sea walls, we can have our bridges inspected, and have our dam inspected as well."

The lake will refill naturally from rainfall, springs, and tributaries, Zelenak said.

The Village will hire the DEQ through The Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) to inspect the dams, and then will hire a private consultant or engineer to do an inspection on the Lake Orion Bridge.

Village properties along the water are inspected by Village employees.

The periods of the inspection usually occur at the end of October, depending on the precipitation that may occur during the reduction period.

Exactly when the lake arrives at the desired level for inspections and repairs is determined by amounts of rain versus the daily drawdown. When the lake is reduced by 36 inches, residents and inspectors have what could be a narrow window to make inspections and repairs.

Residents' responses to the drawdown are mixed, said Zelenak. Some people are looking forward to it and schedule maintenance in accord with the Village's water reduction schedule.

Some residents may not prefer it as much because they do not need the repairs and would like to extend the boating season as long as possible.

As the water levels are reduced, there are more than human interests to balance.

The water levels need to return to normal winter levels before frogs, turtles, snakes, salamanders, and crayfish head underground to hibernate. If the lake level is lowered for too long, there is potential for these hibernating critters to drown when the lake levels rise and they are in deep water.

"You don't want to have sudden change in water levels after they've gone into hibernation," said Jeff Braunscheidel, Fisheries Management Biologist for the Fisheries Division of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.

Hibernation arrives at roughly the same time each year, but factors like weather patterns, temperatures, and the daylight cycle. As the days get shorter, it tends to trigger hibernation, Braunscheidel said.

Due to the fluctuations, the DNR prefers to "have things stabilized by November 1. It's right around that period of time when they start going into serious hibernation. So we want to have the lake level brought back up to its normal winter level by that date, or before then," Braunscheidel said.

In addition to the hibernating critters, a low lake, if drawn down too long, could affect the wetland vegetation because it could get dried out in certain areas. These plants are an important filtering mechanism, providing a barrier to nutrient excesses that can harm algae blooms.

Several different kinds of invertebrates live in those wetland plants. A lake left down too long runs the risk of harm to both vegetation and the insect populations that reside in the plants. If the lake is left down for too long, insects may not be able to move back into those areas before it gets too cold.

Damage to the insects and other invertebrates that make up the base of the food chain will in turn affect the fish who feed on them. Ultimately, the humans who wish to enjoy the lake will suffer.

Andrew Hartz, Southeast Michigan District Coordinator for the Michigan DEQ, confirmed Braunscheidel's assessment, and approved Lake Orion's permit on certain conditions.

"We revised some of the drawdown period to be a little shorter, and we conditioned the permit to have the refilling be a little quicker," Hartz said.

"We were especially concerned about this proposed project this fall due to the drought conditions that we experienced over the summertime. The warmer the lake gets, the less available oxygen there is in the water, and the greater the potential to stress the fish. That's why we put some conditions in the permit," Hartz said.

One of the conditions Hartz insisted on was for the lake to be refilled near November 1.

"The lake should be at its lowest point for no more than fourteen consecutive days," Hartz said.

Lake residents that have projects in mind during the drawdown can apply for special consideration from the DEQ. "While the lake is down, we would like to consider anyone's permit application to allow for work. If that work fits a minor project category for seawall maintenance, that is a permit we would make a priority to review while the lake level is down," Hartz said.

For questions about the Lake Orion drawdown, contact Village Manger Paul Zelenak at 248-693-8391. For more information on DEQ approval of lake projects during the drawdown, contact Andrew Hartz at 586-753-3867 or via email at hartza@michigan.gov.

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