Dry Weather Causing Low Water Levels and Difficult Paddling Conditions

NIDIS map showing that drought conditions in Southern Michigan are likely to persist through Summer 2021

NIDIS map showing that drought conditions in Southern Michigan (and the Western U.S.) are likely to persist through Summer 2021.

Water levels on the Huron River are well below where they have been the last few summers at this time. Some sections of the Upper Huron in Livingston and Oakland Counties have been been particularly affected, with water levels more than 2-3 feet below where they were last year. That’s making sections that are normally easy paddling more challenging. In other places barriers have become exposed making simple passage impossible without portaging or dragging a boat.

The section between Placeway in Island Lake State Recreation Area and Huron Meadows Metropark is especially tricky to navigate. There are many downed trees in a remote stretch of river, and water levels are less than a few inches deep in some places. We recommend waiting until water levels return to normal before attempting this stretch. If you feel you must paddle in this section, make additional preparations for getting through safely. Allow way more time for your trip and bring foot protection for when you inevitably need to get out of your canoe or kayak.

Channels and shallower sections in the Chain of Lakes area have also been vulnerable to abnormally dry conditions. Pontoon boats are stranded on exposed bottomlands, and in some places, side channels have lost their connection to the main stem of the river entirely.

Throughout much of the river, paddling will be possible but slow and more challenging, since the water is so shallow you can’t fully submerge your paddle’s blade. This can make out-and-back trips that require paddling up a shallow section really difficult. Be prepared to get in a rigorous arm workout in such instances.

The low water levels have been driven by a dramatic swing in weather conditions. Just last year, long-term conditions were much wetter than average. Water tables were high. Basements and backyards along the river were flooding. This year, we’ve entered into moderate long-term drought conditions, as measured by the National Integrated Drought Information Center (NIDIS). The current outlooks project continued dry weather through much of the summer. We’ll need significant and sustained precipitation over a few weeks to get back to normal water levels, and that looks unlikely for the remainder of the season.

Climate scientists expect more frequent, big year-to-year swings in precipitation and water levels like this due to climate change. Over longer periods of time, however, conditions are likely to continue to get wetter and wetter.

For the 2021 season, we recommend checking with local Water Trail outfitters before your trip for a sense of the paddling conditions. We also recommend paddling in open water sections or areas downriver of Ann Arbor for more consistent water levels that are closer to normal. That recommendation could change if the weather suddenly gets wetter. We’ve updated our online Water Trail Map to indicate areas where passage may be difficult, and will continue to do so throughout the season as we learn more. Click on the hazard symbols for information.

 

 

PFAS in Foam on the Huron River Water Trail

As the emerging threat of PFAS has unfolded across Michigan and on the Huron River, it’s raised concerns about recreation.

Swimming, bathing, and boating on the Huron River Water Trail are still okay. For those activities, continue to enjoy the water as you have with a few minor precautions. PFAS isn’t

Foam that possibly contains PFAS

Photo of foam from 2013 that possibly contains PFAS, near Barton Dam, Ann Arbor, by Rebecca Foster.

a health risk when exposed to skin. The risk is that high levels of PFAS in foam can get on your hands and clothes and eventually make it into your mouth or nose. It’s a health risk when ingested over time, so accidental mouthfuls of river water are no cause for concern. The State of Michigan has issued a Do Not Eat Fish advisory for the Huron River and an advisory to avoid ingesting river foam.

PFAS tends to concentrate in foam and can lead to foam forming on the river, but foam is also naturally occurring. State experts and resources describe PFAS foam as bright white, sticky, lightweight, and that it tends to pile up near the water’s edge. Other harmless substances can create similar foam, however, and there’s really no practical way to know how much PFAS is in any glob of foam just by looking at it. It’s best to play it safe and treat all foam on the river as potentially containing high levels of PFAS. If you find foam you suspect is not naturally occurring, call the state’s 24-hour pollution hotline at (800) 292-4706.

Enjoy the River While Protecting Yourself from PFAS Foam

  • Have fun swimming and boating on the river away from foam. Skin contact with river water or foam isn’t a concern.  Accidental mouthfuls of river water or no cause for alarm.
  • Avoid foam on the Huron River or connected lakes and creeks. Avoid touching foam and make sure to keep pets and kids away from foam. PFAS tends to concentrate in foam.
  • Foam naturally occurs on rivers and PFAS tends to concentrate in foam, but there’s no way to know how much PFAS is in any glob of foam just by looking at it. It’s best to play it safe and treat all foam on the river as potentially containing high levels of PFAS.
  • Although it feels nice on a hot summer day, don’t linger in the spray immediately below dams. It may be possible to inhale PFAS attached to foam spray.
  • Wash your hands with soap and water and rinse off once you get home from paddling or swimming in the river.
  • Rinse off pets if they made contact with foam or foamy water. Rinsing off in the same river or lake where foam isn’t present is okay.

For more information on PFAS in the Huron River watershed, visit the Huron River Watershed Council’s webpage at HRWC.org/PFAS.

 

PFAS in Fish on the Huron River

Don’t eat fish from the Huron River. The State of Michigan has tested fish from multiple location on the Huron River and found high levels of PFAS. The Michigan Department of Health

PFAS Do Not Eat the Fish Sign at Baseline Lake

PFAS Do Not Eat the Fish Sign at Baseline Lake by Daniel Brown

and Human Services (MDHHS) issued a Do Not Eat Fish Advisory for the entire river. Because fish are mobile, the Huron River Watershed Council advises you to avoid eating fish for the river or any connected lake or creek.

PFAS accumulates in fish meat. That makes it different than previous contaminants that accumulated in fat that could be safely scraped away from the filet.

The Do Not Eat Fish Advisory for the Huron River upriver from Ypsilanti will likely continue for the foreseeable future. The advisory may be lifted sooner in areas downriver. The levels of PFAS found in the waters of Kent Lake and its fish were especially high. Lakes and river sections from Island Lake State Recreation Area to Milford will likely see the advisory remain in place longer than elsewhere.

Other recreational activities, like swimming and kayaking on the river are okay. You can read about how to protect yourself from PFAS while enjoying the river HERE.

The Huron River Watershed Council is monitoring developments regarding PFAS in the river and regularly updates the webpage at HRWC.org/PFAS.

 

PFAS and Recreation on the Huron River

It is Safe to Swim and Boat.

As the emerging threat of PFAS has unfolded across Michigan and on the Huron River, it’s raised concerns about recreation.

Swimmers at Baseline Lake

Swimmers at Baseline Lake in Dexter.

The good news is that swimming and boating on the Huron River Water Trail are still okay. For those activities, we can continue to enjoy the water as we have. PFAS isn’t a health risk when exposed to skin. It’s a health risk when ingested over time, so accidental mouthfuls of river water are no cause for concern.

The bad news is that the State of Michigan has issued a Do Not Eat Fish Advisory for the entire river.  Anglers should not eat any fish from the Huron River or the connected waterways for the foreseeable future. We expect that advisory will remain in place for several years.

The state also issued a second advisory telling people not to ingest river foam. Those of us with pets or small children should stay away from river foam when possible and avoid lingering below dams or where foam tends to occur. PFAS concentrates in foam. That said, foam is naturally occurring on the river and not all foam is PFAS foam, but it’s often impossible to know the difference by looking at it. Wash your hands and rinse off after making contact with foamy water. Rinsing with non-foamy river water is okay.

As we head into the 2019 paddling season, there are many encouraging signs. PFAS levels were much higher on the Huron River during the late summer of 2018. One of the major sources of PFAS to the river took steps to reduce its discharge of PFAS chemicals, and contamination levels on the river have dropped significantly.

General PFAS Advisory Poster for HRWT Partners

There are likely several other lesser sources, and the Huron River Watershed Council is working with state and local partners to identify those sources, reduce contamination to the river, and inform paddlers on the Water Trail. Visit HRWC.org/PFAS for updated information.

HRWC has created an informational flyer, at left, for outfitters and other Water Trail Partners who provide river-related services to the public. It is also available as a larger poster. Contact Daniel Brown at [email protected] if you need one to post at your place of business.