Jury still out on lake levels near K.I. Sawyer

MARQUETTE – Waiting for the retreat of winter’s snow and ice, the Marquette County Board will try to determine in June whether decreased water well pumping and an above-average winter snowfall have helped rebound water levels in Martin Lake at K.I. Sawyer.

“We were going to see this month as to where the water level is, unfortunately, we’re dealing with a winter that doesn’t seem to want to go away,” said Martin Lake property owner Karl Malashanko.

Malashanko and another resident visited the shoreline of the 26-acre lake about three hours before meeting Tuesday with the county board.

“We had to do some shoveling to get to some of the markers I put in last year. There’s still ice on the lake, the shoreline is still covered with an average of about 8 to 10 inches (of snow),” Malashanko said. “From what I was able to see, the vertical level of the water has come up a couple of inches.”

Malashanko said that increased water level means a loss on the average of about 10 feet of beach, depending on location around the lake.

That preliminary assessment could be good news for lake residents.

“It probably wouldn’t be a bad idea to come back in the middle of June or the third week in June and see where we’re at, at that point,” Malashanko said.

Over the past several years, lakefront property owners have been concerned about declining water levels and last year began a push to engage local, state and federal officials to help fix the problem.

The water has dropped by as much as eight feet over the past several years, resulting in decreased property values, lost recreational opportunities and the decimation of populations of fish, including northern pike, bluegill, bass and crappie.

Last fall, the K.I. Sawyer Water Department reduced pumping from water wells 9 and 10 to decrease any possible effects the production may have on groundwater levels southeast of the wells, including Martin Lake.

That action was taken at the urging of residents in the Martin Lake area who blame pumping from the two wells for adversely affecting the level of Martin Lake and Sporley Lake, located nearby. The board agreed to cut water production at the wells to the lowest levels possible, without affecting water quality, and said it would revisit the lake levels issue this spring.

Water from wells 9 and 10 and two others -wells 4 and 5- provide water for residential, commercial, industrial and fire protection needs within the K.I. Sawyer community.

Sawyer Operations Manager Steve Schenden said the decreased pumping at wells 9 and 10 began Oct. 5 and a summary of pumping levels is sent to residents each month, as requested by the board.

The two wells produce 3-5 percent of the water used at K.I. Sawyer. Officials have noticed no change in water quality with decreased operation of the wells.

“According to the figures that we’re getting, it’s been averaging a little over 3 percent that the wells have been pumping,” Malashanko said. “That translates into about one day’s worth of water usage per month. So that’s a dramatic decrease.”

Residents see the results as support for their goal of permanently capping wells 9 and 10.

“It seems that the fact that the water quality hasn’t changed and the base is able to survive with wells 4 and 5, it kind of proves in a way that those other two wells aren’t needed unless the air base decides to go back into full operation like it used to be,” Malashanko said.

Schenden wasn’t ready to lay the blame solely on the water wells pumping.

He said a circle with a 1-mile radius of sand, 1-foot deep, would yield 131 million gallons of groundwater in a year. K.I. Sawyer currently pumps about 109 million gallons a year. Schenden said it would take about 2.4 inches of precipitation to annually recharge that groundwater.

“You look at our precipitation records, we get about 30 inches of precipitation a year so you’d think out of that much we’d get two to three inches that would recharge the aquifer for our use,” Schenden said.

However, Schenden cautioned other factors, including evaporation, influence how much rainfall and snowmelt reaches the aquifer.

Schenden said Martin Lake has a higher elevation than surrounding areas, with groundwater slowly flowing downhill away from the lake toward the water wells. He said it may take 10 years for groundwater to travel a half-mile.

“Essentially what you have here in the Martin Lake and down toward Little Lake area, you have a high spot, there’s no recharge there except for the water, the precipitation that comes down,” Schenden said. “And because this is on a high point like this with all the water draining every way, it’s a very susceptible area to drought.”

Schenden said a review of aerial photos of Martin Lake and Kingston Lake in Alger County – which has a similar sand plains setting with no wells affecting its water level – showed both lakes with low levels in 2011, full in 2005 and down significantly in 1964.

“It could be a cyclic event happening here too,” Schenden said.

Malashanko said the U.S. Air Force used Martin Lake water in 1964 for construction, which could have affected those water levels. The base closed in 1995.

“The Air Force has done a lot of studies, they’re inconclusive,” Schenden said. “When you look at the size and scope of the problem here, with all the groundwater going all the different directions, it’s hard to say either way.”

John Pepin can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 206.