Great Lakes states breathe easier as water levels recede. Dry spring weather relieves flooding, skims 18 inches off lake surfaces

The Great Lakes are receding. After setting record levels last fall, this huge system of freshwater has fallen back by about 18 inches.

``We're getting a reprieve that no one could have predicted a year ago,'' says James Lubner of the University of Wisconsin Sea Grant Institute. ``You can almost hear the collective sigh of relief.''

In Toledo, Ohio, international shipper Don Shefferly is seeing better times. An increasing number of ships are now able to get under a low Maumee River bridge without having to cut off their masts.

In Saugatuck, Mich., resort owner Joe Milauckas hopes to see his beach again. ``We're happy it's going in the right direction,'' he says.

The situation may continue to improve over the next six months, hydrologists say. Based on weather forecasts and trend data, the US Army Corps of Engineers predicts even lower levels this fall. But Great Lakes experts remain cautions about celebrating too soon.

``We're not out of the woods yet,'' says Ed Megerian, chief of the Army Corps' lake hydrology section.

For one thing, the three middle lakes - Michigan, Huron, and Erie - are still 1 feet above their long-term averages. For another, the weather remains unpredictable. Usually, the Great Lakes rise during the spring and recede in the fall. But last fall unusually cool, wet weather caused the lakes to rise unexpectedly. Then this spring, a highly unusual dry spell confounded the experts and brought lower water levels. For the nine months between November 1986 and July 1987, precipitation in the Great Lakes was 23 percent below average - the biggest nine-month drop in this Century, Mr. Megerian says.

If such unusual weather patterns continue, several experts warn that the Great Lakes may fluctuate more dramatically than in the past.

``We still have high levels; they could go higher still,'' says Donna Wise, president of the Center for the Great Lakes, a research and policy center based in Chicago and Toronto. Several Great Lakes observers say that political pressure must be maintained to protect lakeshore interests in the future.

On Wednesday, Michigan announced another $2.2 million will be available to help homeowners and communities protect themselves from high Great Lakes levels. The new money comes on top of some $6 million the state has already spent on high-water protection. But if lake levels stabilize, some state officials doubt the legislature will spend any more money.

``Nobody's going to spend millions of dollars to put in place something that's not perceived as a priority item,'' Dr. Lubner says. US and Canadian governments around the Great Lakes must continue working on ways to lessen high-water damage in the future, he says. Possible solutions include: water-level control measures, increased shore protection, and legislation that strongly discourages new construction in flood-prone areas.

While most lakeshore interests are pleased about lower lake levels, a few have been embarrassed by the unexpected drop. Early this year, the county-owned McKinley Marina in Milwaukee spent just over $2 million to raise and rehabilitate several piers, only to see Lake Michigan drop abruptly.

``We're kind of out of the water a little bit,'' concedes Dave Schulz, director of the county's parks and recreation department. The county eventually installed $80 ladders to allow boat owners to reach their boats.

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