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Eight Surprises at Lake Michigan This Summer

Despite chilly water, spilled oil, and, um—sewage—this summer’s lake forecast isn’t all bad. Here’s what you’ll find on the beach.

Photo: Ken Illo/Getty Images

A massive oil spill. Swimmer-throttling algae. Frigid temps that put a Mr. Freeze touch on 92 percent of the surface water. With all the recent headlines about Lake Michigan sounding like disaster-movie plots, you might be freaking out about what awaits you when you head to the water this summer. (Spoiler alert: It’s not all bad.)

The Good

Happy Fishermen

Grab your tackle box. The most popular catches—including rainbow trout, chinook salmon, and yellow perch—“can survive the polar vortex,” says Vic Santucci of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. What’s more, certain delish cold-water fish, like coho salmon, that usually head north to spawn, will stick around here for the season. Sushi, anyone?

No More Dredging

Low water levels have been a buzz kill for boaters in recent years. Taking your craft out on the water has meant first having to dredge it out of your dock. That won’t be a concern this year. Thanks to all the snowmelt, the lake level will be up 9 to 14 inches, says the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. That’s good news, too, for the commercial shipping industry, desperate to make up lost ground from the icy winter.

Less Algae

One positive of the brutal winter: Colder lake temps should ward off the nasty, smelly algae that has been such a nuisance to swimmers in recent years—at least for a while. Cladophora, as it is officially called, starts growing when the water hits the 60s, according to Central Michigan University biologist Hunter Carrick—so, around July.

Oil? What Oil?

There’s nothing like a 1,700-gallon oil spill—kudos, BP!—to put the fear of God in lake lovers. But miraculously, that near catastrophe will be a virtual nonissue this summer. Strong winds, which kept the oil contained, and cold temps, which caused the spillage to congeal and made cleanup easier, kept the worst damage at bay.

The Bad

Fewer Ducks

One of the joys of taking children to the lake is feeding the fowl. Well, break it to the kiddos gently: With ice blocking access to its crustacean diet, Chicago’s duck population took a dive in the spring. “I saw more dead ducks than I’ve ever seen,” says Philip Willink of the Shedd Aquarium. Upside? Fewer ducks mean fewer duck droppings.

Smaller Beaches

Bad news for the beach-towel set: Sandy spots will get a smidge scarcer, especially where the beaches are flatter. Water levels that are a foot higher could slice off several dozen feet of available sand at places like Montrose and North Avenue Beaches, as well as in the far north outposts of Door County and Grand Traverse Bay.

Shivering Swimmers

Forget about taking an early-season dip. In the past, when ice has covered about 90 percent of the lake, as it did this winter, water temperatures have averaged a bracing 59 degrees in June. Swimmers will have to wait until late July or early August before the lake reaches the low 70s, the mark that is widely considered comfortable.

Sewage Spikes

Take a century-old sewage system falling further into disrepair and add increasingly violent storms fueled by global warming. (Columbia University puts the odds at better than 50-50 of an El Niño summer.) The result? Some serious bacterial nastiness from runoffs that could lead to even more beach warnings than last summer, when the city issued 189 advisories across 23 swim areas.

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