As summer approaches, boaters who enjoy spending time on Lake Winnipesaukee have their eyes focused on two things: the weather and the lake level.
Most lakes have natural high and low seasonal water points caused by the whims of nature. But the state’s largest lakes are too important to New Hampshire’s tourism economy to be left to chance.
The levels of Squam, Sunapee, Newfound and about 60 others are controlled by dams that are managed by the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services. The dams are usually opened – or, more accurately, opened wider – around Columbus Day to “drawdown” the water levels.
This makes room for spring rains and melting winter snowpack, which ideally bring the levels up to good recreational levels by the time summer begins.
But things are different on Winnipesaukee.
“Lake Winnipesaukee is not purposely drawn down in the fall,” according to a bulletin published by the DES in September.
“Instead, each year on Columbus Day, releases from the Lakeport Dam (in Laconia) are reduced from a normal minimum of 250 cubic feet per second (cfs) to a flow between 30 and 50 cfs for a period of up to two weeks to allow for maintenance of the dams and hydropower facilities on the Winnipesaukee River.”
In other words, while the other big lakes are going down, Winnipesaukee is holding its water level steady or, sometimes, going up.
Related: Click here for more on the Lakeport Dam in Laconia.
Dan Mattaini, an operating engineer with the DES’s Dam Bureau, says the aim for Winnipesaukee is the same as for the other lakes: to have it at a “full lake” depth when summer begins.
For the state’s largest lake that’s about 504-feet above sea level, as measured at Weirs Beach. The DES tries to keep the seasonal high and low water points within two feet of that marker. “We’re pretty much on track this year to be at full level by June first,” Mattaini explains.
Lake level is important to boaters because it effects how much they can enjoy their vessels.
Related: Click here for Lake Winnipesaukee's current lake level, via NH DES
If the water level is high, they generally love it: they can drive to almost any part of Winnipesaukee’s 71 square miles without fear of damaging their boats on rocks or other underwater impediments, although they may have to be careful traveling under some low bridges.
If the water is too high, however, flooding can damage docks and other waterfront structures, as well as shorelines and beaches.
If the water on Winnipesaukee is low, boaters have to be more cautious about where they go, especially close to the shallow shoreline. They may even have trouble tying up at a dock or getting their vessels in or out of the water.
However, the DES sometimes has to let the lake level drop so it can meet other obligations related to the use of the Lakeport Dam.
Peter Ames is the DES engineer who operates the dam, which carries water out of Lake Winnipesaukee into the Winnipesaukee River. He admits it’s not easy balancing the weather and the demands of boaters as well as others who depend on the dam’s flow.
“It’s a seven-days-a-week job, and it’s a tough one,” he says. “I love my job but the lake really has to be monitored closely. It’s such a big body of water, it covers such a big area."
“For that little dam in Lakeport to have an impact on the Big Lake – well, If we wanted to take Winnipesaukee down six inches, we could draw it down (by opening the dam), but it would take days before people could see the difference at the other end of the lake in Wolfeboro."
"Compare that with Crystal Lake in Gilmanton: I can drain that down three-feet in about 12 hours. If I was to try to drain Winnipesaukee three feet it would take three weeks.”
The Dam Bureau uses an arsenal of weapons in its fight to keep Winnipesaukee at a “full lake” level.
Ames himself, who has been with DES for more than 15 years, brings a raft of experience to the job he took over a year ago from 35-year veteran operator Bob Fay. Before working at the Lakeport Dam he directed drawdowns from Concord for about 5o other New Hampshire lakes.
Ames uses a variety of instruments to understand of how much rain has fallen, or is forecast to fall, in the Lake Winnipesaukee Watershed, and how much is likely be absorbed by the ground.
“We have runoff charts that will tell us how many inches of rain will go into the lake,” he says, “and we know how much it takes to fill the lake.”
The DES tracks the same information during the winter, evaluating seven weather stations scattered around Winnipesaukee, including one in Tamworth and one at the Gunstock Mountain Resort in Gilford.
Each station has about ten measuring areas that are 20-to-25 feet apart from one another, Ames says. The tools measure the depth of snowfall and, by figuring its water content, can determine how much runoff will turn into water that will flow into Winnipesaukee.
Improvements in weather forecasting and water measuring tools have made collecting information much easier than it was ten years ago, according to Ames.
“We used to have to go out and look at these water gages but now we have these river gages that are computerized,” he explains. “It’s a lot more accurate.”
In all, managing Lake Winnipesaukee’s lake level means incorporating information from seven different area watersheds, including Lake Wentworth’s in Wolfeboro and Lake Waukewan’s in Meredith.
But deciding exactly when and how much to drawdown Lake Winnipesaukee through the Lakeport Dam is still the critical part of Ames’ job.
“The lake drawdowns are important to give people time (and a predictable water level) to work on their docks, shorelines and beaches,” he says.
“And they also kill certain kinds of invasive plants like pickleweed. If the lake (water level) was still up, they’d be underwater, they’d be protected from the frost. If the water level is down, they won’t have that protection and they’ll freeze.”
The timing and extent of Winnipesaukee’s drawdowns are complicated by non-boating conditions tied to the Lakeport Dam, such as those owned by five hydroelectric plants that harness the Winnipesaukee River’s power for energy. The facilities have legal right to expect a minimum flow of 250 cfs through the dam.
“These historical water rights were established in the 19th century but are still valid today,” according to a DES informational website.
In addition, the NH Fish and Game Department wants the DES to release about 229 cfs from the dam to aid in the preservation of wildlife in the region.
And since Silver Lake in Belmont does not have a dam at its outlet, historic records indicate that if the Lakeport Dam release rate drops under 250 cfs, that lake’s level can drop too low for residents’ use.
Winnipesaukee’s lake level is always a lively topic of conversation in the Lakes Region.
“In the spring, it’s always a crap shoot because you don’t know what’s going to happen,” says Paul Goodwin, the owner of Watermark Marine Construction of Gilford. “You hope the DES does a good job of managing things.”
“This year they hit it on the button,” says Tom Young of Melvin Village Marina in Tuftonborough, who has worked on the lake for 30 years. “The lake came up fast (this spring)."
“But we have seen other years where they miscalculated in the early spring and there’s flooding. Docks are underwater, speed limits are instituted on the lake,” Young says. “I remember one year – not recently, maybe 10 years ago – where we saw a dock floating by with four boats still tied to it.”
“Most of the complaints you hear this time of year are about high water,” says Brad Balise of Goodhue Marine In Moultonborough, citing property damage to docks and other facilities.
“Sometimes there’s speed restrictions and no-wake zones,” he adds. “I don’t like high-water, no-wake zones. It hurts the industry, it hurts everybody.”
As bad as high water in spring can be, it’s during the late summer and early fall, when the heat and sun can drop the lake level as much as a foot, when boaters are more likely to complain, says Don Thurston of Thurston’s Marina in Weirs Beach.
Young also sees that problem late each season. Melvin Village Marina is near a sandbar which can be difficult to navigate for inexperienced boaters when lake levels drop.
“It’s typically three feet almost every fall and that’s about the very minimum you can do without some extra help and some good boating knowledge.”
“I’ve always thought they managed the lake too low,” complains Watermark Marine Construction's Goodwin, who says he regularly sees problems after his company installs boat slips.
“The state tries to hold us to about three-feet above ‘full lake’ for a boat slip. But if the water is a foot less you can have a legal boat slip but you can’t put your boat into the water because the drop is too steep.”
Steve Durgan of Goodhue & Hawkins Boat Yard in Wolfeboro said he’s heard so much about the lake level over the years that he doesn’t believe the conversation will ever stop.
But, like several other business owners on Lake Winnipesaukee, he understands the tough job Ames and his DES cohorts trying to balance competing demands on the Lakeport Dam and the unpredictable nature of New England weather.
“I’d hate to be that guy who has to make those decisions about when to open the dam and when to close it,” he says.
Ray Carbone is a long-time Lakes Region editor and writer whose work has appeared in the Boston Globe, “New Hampshire” magazine, New Hampshire Business Review and other regional media. He currently keeps a Lakes Region blog. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org