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Mullett Lake and the Inland Waterway

bird's-eye view of lake and private homes

Mullett Lake and the Inland Waterway

Extending nearly 40 miles long, the Inland Waterway is Michigan’s longest chain of rivers and lakes. It’s a large, complex watershed – spanning approximately 50,000 acres of lake surface – with multiple streams, rivers and Pickerel, Crooked, Burt, Mullett and Black lakes. The watershed is in Cheboygan, Presque Isle, Otsego and Emmet counties, with all waters eventually draining into Lake Huron through the mouth of the Cheboygan River. 

Mullett Lake is a large, deep, high-quality lake with 200 billion gallons of water within its basin. It’s the state’s fifth largest lake, with a surface area of 16,630 acres. The Mullett Lake Watershed encompasses 744 square miles; however, much of the watershed is located upstream from Burt Lake.

Water levels throughout the entire system are greatly affected by natural weather patterns outside of human control, including wind, rain, snow, ice jams, spring thaw, shoaling and evaporation, as well as often competing public interests. 

Managing water levels

There are five points of water level control on the Inland Waterway: the Alanson Lock and Weir, the Alverno hydroelectric facility, the Kleber hydroelectric facility, Cheboygan Dam and the former Great Lakes Tissue hydroelectric facility. 

The U.S. Geological Survey streamgaging station  monitors water levels on Mullet Lake and the Cheboygan River daily, and adjustments to the six gates of the DNR-managed Cheboygan Dam are regularly made to maintain target levels on both the lake and river. 

In 1983, when the former owner of the Great Lakes Tissue Facility initiated the Cheboygan Dam Powerhouse Redevelopment Project it was required to obtain licensing from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC).  As part of the FERC licensing process, an agreement between the DNR and the former Great Lakes Tissue facility owners was entered into allowing for fine-tuning water releases from the Cheboygan River using valves and gates in the powerhouse to allow for a “run-of-the river operation that would not negatively impact water quality and not adversely affect migratory fish species.

Challenges

In September 2023, a fire at the Great Lakes Tissue plant led to the shutdown of the plant’s hydroelectric generator. It's undetermined if or when it will be back in operation. The hydroelectric generation facility can account for up to approximately 30% of the capacity of water passed out of the mouth of the Cheboygan River into Lake Huron. 

There are many competing public interests regarding the water level management of the inland waterway.  
Weather patterns outside of human control have great effect on water level management.

The impact

The Great Lakes Tissue hydroelectric facility played a key role in water level management through “fine-tuned” incremental adjustments to water levels. Without these adjustments, the DNR must exclusively use the six gates at the Cheboygan Dam to manage water levels. 
Until a solution is finalized, boaters and lakefront property owners can expect to see more significant water level changes along the Cheboygan River and Mullet Lake.

The DNR is in communication with the current property owner at the former location of the Great Lakes Tissue plant, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy and community partners to keep apprised of changes and developments. 

For more information, contact the DNR Cheboygan Field Office at 231-627-9011.

    Lake/river levels

    A 1934 county resolution identified an independent determination of Mullett Lake’s target level at 593.1 feet above mean sea level. Maximum (594.0 feet) and minimum (592.15 feet) lake levels also were set. 

    An annual 12-inch winter drawdown on Mullett Lake lowers the chain of lakes to established target levels. The purpose is to help minimize ice damage to property and keep lake levels within the target during the spring thaw to safeguard appropriate passage for snowmelt and rain runoff to Lake Huron. 
    The lake level is lowered (drawdown) Oct. 15 to March 31 to a target of 592.15 feet in the winter, and then gradually raised back to 593.1 feet by the spring (April 1-15). Weather conditions can make it extremely difficult to reach target drawdown levels. 

    The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers recognizes 60 inches, for recreational purposes, as a safe navigable depth of the rivers of the Inland Waterway. The DNR does not dredge the Inland Waterway.