MARQUETTE - Martin Lake, located on the outskirts of the former K.I. Sawyer Air Force Base, is drying up.
"It's depressing," said Karl Malashanko, who has owned property on the lake since 1977. "I don't even want to go out there. It is very depressing."
On a map, the lake appears to be divided into two big ovals, with a small canal connecting the two. However, Martin Lake has been reduced to one small pond, with the canal dried up. The second, smaller half of the lake is almost gone as well. A small pool of water is still left behind, surrounded by a marshy field.
This trio of photographs of Martin Lake in Forsyth Township clearly shows that the lake is drying up. Why it’s happening is the subject of debate. (Journal photos by Jackie Stark)
The lake has been devastated by a loss of water so severe some homeowners have simply stopped moving their docks up to the waterline. Along the shore, old docks jut out into dry land, with ladders that extend down a few feet into open air. Small boats rest against trees that used to be situated on the shoreline but are now yards away from the ever-receding water.
So what's happening to the lake? The answer depends on who you ask.
Residents on Martin Lake say the water is being drawn out by wellheads installed when Sawyer was still a fully functioning Air Force base.
They say the wellhead protection area around two wells - Nos. 9 and 10 - located on the southeast corner of the base includes portions of Martin Lake and that the wells are pulling thousands of gallons away from the lake and into water faucets in homes across the base.
"The smoking gun is that wellhead protection area, that diagram," Malashanko said. "It shows that the wells are drawing water from Martin Lake. The wellhead protection protrudes into Martin Lake. It can't be any clearer than that."
And problems with lake levels and those wells are nothing new to Malashanko, who remembers dealing with a similar issue about 20 years ago.
There are four main wells the base used for drinking water in the 1990s: wells 4 and 5, located in the northwest corner of the base, and wells 9 and 10.
A map shows the wellhead protection area for 9 and 10 jutting into the northern portion of Martin Lake and nearly covering the entirety of Wilson Lake, with Sporely Lake untouched but close by. Both Wilson and Sporely have seen significant drops in water levels recently.
Malashanko said Martin Lake's water level was fine when the base was fully operational, until the base began to ramp up its use of wells 9 and 10.
"We (saw water levels drop) in the early '90s, after they put the pumps in, after they sank wells 9 and 10," Malashanko said. "That's when the manure hit the fan. That's when all these articles were generated. That's when the usage came into the picture."
According to an April 8, 1995, Mining Journal article, the 1995 U.S. Geological Survey conducted a six-month study concerning the wells' impact on the surrounding area. It found no direct evidence to tie the wells' usage to lake levels, though it did concede the possibility of such a connection.
According to Marquette County Water and Wastewater Supervisor Nick Hautamaki, from 1990 to 1994, wells 4 and 5 went from pumping 373.9 million gallons per year to 9.82 million gallons while wells 9 and 10 increased in usage from 117.7 million gallons per year to 362.82 million.
However, the wells are now on more of an even keel and are pumping millions of gallons less than the they were in the early 1990s. Based on averages from 2005-2011, wells 4 and 5 pumped 57.64 million gallons per year and wells 9 and 10 pumped 56.94 million gallons.
Hautamaki said all four wells are piped to a common water tower, which is used for residential, commercial, industrial and fire protection services at K.I. Sawyer.
Although the USGS's inconclusive report did state the wells could be a contributing factor to dropping lake levels, it also cited another problem: precipitation levels.
That issue, combined with a record-breaking hot summer, is what Michigan Department of Natural Resources Fisheries Biologist Cory Kovacs said is a main factor in declining inland lake levels.
"As you look across the area, we're experiencing low lake levels in just about every lake that is dependent on surface water and even spring water," said Kovacs, who works out of the DNR's Newberry office. "The springs haven't been recharged over a long period of time. Just like most of the nation, the drought conditions we're experiencing here are all over the Upper Peninsula, not just locally.
"We have lakes in northern Luce County that are 10 feet down, 9 feet down, but we have lakes down the road that are almost full pools, so it's interesting to see," he added.
Steve Casey, district supervisor for the Water Resources Division of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, said much the same thing, adding that there was no connection between the usage of wells 9 and 10 and the drop in Martin Lake's water level.
"There's no real impact between the water supply for K.I. Sawyer and those lakes," said Casey, who works out of the DEQ's Sawyer office. "There are many, many lakes in this region that have been greatly drawn down by the drought. We have been in an extended drought in this part of the country."
Casey said several lakes in the area are showing the drought's effects, citing Powell Lake in Sands Township as an example. Powell Lake has completely dried up, he said.
Though this year's precipitation totals are on track with the yearly average, Kovacs and Casey said the problem began with the low precipitation levels of recent years, and its effects are beginning to show in drastic ways.
"You just look across the U.P., the amount of rainfall, especially the snowfall, has been significantly depleted the last 10 years. We haven't had significant snowfall for some time," Kovacs said. "The drought conditions and the high temperatures are affecting the evaporation rate and nothing is being put back."
According to records from the National Weather Service, total inches of rainfall at its Negaunee station over the last 10 years hovered around the yearly average of 36.32 inches, with the lowest amount of rainfall occurring in 2011 at 29.66 inches. The highest came in 2002, when 44.15 inches of rain fell.
Snowfall, however, was higher than average every year, from the 2002-2003 winter through the 2008-2009 season. In 2009-2010, the snowfall dropped drastically, from 246 inches the previous year to 163.1 inches.
The lowest snowfall of the last decade occurred in the 2010-2011 season, which had 159.6 inches of total snowfall. The highest was in the 2002-2003 season at 319.8 inches, which doubled the amount of the 2010-2011 season.
For residents along Martin Lake and other surrounding lakes, whether it's an issue with rain and snowfall or with wellheads, the lake levels are still dropping, and they are still waiting for the answers that could save their lakes.
"We were hoping there would be a turnaround (this year)," Malashanko said. "It's just a continuous drop."
Jackie Stark can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 242.