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.