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Editorial: Get the to bottom of changes in Lake Michigan

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Updated: February 8, 2013 6:09AM

As Lake Michigan levels hover around record lows, experts are starting to worry the lake surface could sink so much the Chicago River will reverse itself once again — back toward the lake.

Shallower water also means warmer water, which could become home to pathogens and invasive species. It would further hurt commercial shipping and make it harder for recreational boaters to get in and out of harbors. Already on the eastern shore of Lake Huron — hydrologically the same body of water as Lake Michigan — some landowners are separated from the lake by walls of 10-to-12-foot-high invasive reeds growing in newly shallow water. They hardly feel as though they have beachfront property anymore.

It’s time to do a comprehensive study that will tell us how much the falling lake level is due to natural cycles or whether we have lost water that is never coming back because of human activities. We also need to know what, if anything, we should do to restore water to Lake Michigan.

So far, no agency has wanted to touch this. Water levels in Lake Ontario already are controlled, and battles over where to set the levels never end. Similar debates could happen here. Along the shores of Lake Michigan, infrastructure built in an era of lower lake levels would be threatened if those levels went back up.

But we can’t afford the risk that lake levels will just keep dropping and dropping. Ideally, a U.S.-Canada commission, with input from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, would do a thorough analysis and make recommendations.

More than a century ago, we reversed the flow of the Chicago River to keep polluted water out of the lake, which now is the source of drinking water for most of the metropolis. The river has been getting cleaner in recent years, but it’s far from clean enough to allow it to flow back into the lake.

All along Lake Michigan’s 1,640-mile shoreline, disappearing water is raising questions. It’s time to get some answers.

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