Water levels of Minnesota lakes, rivers and streams fluctuate greatly in 2022

"One of the old things we used to say is the lake is not a bathtub, it doesn't just lay at one level," said Pete Boulay, a climatologist with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. "What I

Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Cooperative Stream Gauging map with a yellow drought conditions overlay. Individual pins represent streams. Blue: above normal level, Green: normal level between 26th-75th percentile, Orange: below normal level, Red: much below normal level. The map shows current conditions.
Screenshot / MN DNR website
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After coming out of the worst drought in more than a decade in 2021, the levels of Minnesota lakes, rivers and streams have varied greatly in 2022 based on regional precipitation patterns and a number of other factors.

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Some water tables, especially in southern Minnesota and the Twin Cities area, are still lower than normal due to ongoing drought conditions, said Pete Boulay, a climatologist with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

"One of the old things we used to say is the lake is not a bathtub, it doesn't just lay at one level," said Boulay. "What I always point out, when people complain that (water levels) have never been this low, just go back farther and you'll find lower water than you have right now."

Boulay said a number of other factors contribute to the yearly water level fluctuations of each of Minnesota's lakes, which are all unique with their own regional water ecosystems.

"Watershed size matters," he said. "How much of these rains fill the lake? Is there a river going out of the lake? Is the lake landlocked and there is no way for the water to go out? Every lake can be a little different and it will fluctuate, it depends on the lake."


He also said some lake shorelines can be shallower than others with slighter grading, so a 1-foot difference in water level will look completely different to homeowners based on coastal depth.

Lake Melissa water level above-sea-level in feet.
Contributed / MN DNR

In May 2022, Lake Melissa in Becker County recorded its highest water level on record, 1,329.94 feet above sea level. That's 6.36 feet higher than its lowest recorded level of 1,323.58 feet above sea level in 1937.

Comparatively, Green Lake, near Willmar, Minn., recorded water levels in 2022 ranging from 1,158.2 feet above sea level during the spring to a current level of 1,156.8 feet above sea level on Aug. 30. Green Lake's current level is about 1.5 feet below the lake's ordinary high water level , but still about 3 feet above its lowest recorded level of 1,153.9 measured in 1976.

Green Lake water level above-sea-level in feet.
Contributed / MN DNR

He also said the 2010s were the wettest decade on record for Minnesota and lakefront homeowners may have become accustomed to higher water levels as a new normal.

"The general pattern we've seen with climate change is wetter conditions and that was the case in (the 2010s)," said Boulay. "We actually went a long time without a real big drought, 2012, and we didn't have the next one until 2021, about every 10 years, you can expect to have a serious drought. Climate change or not, we've always seen drought as part of Minnesota's climate and it has always been there, and it always will be there, but the nuance in that is we've had more high (water level) values than we've had in the past."

He added that 2019 was the wettest year in Minnesota history with a statewide average precipitation of 35.51 inches; comparatively, the driest years in Minnesota history were between 1932 to 1936, when the statewide average precipitation only reached about 20 inches, according to the Minnesota DNR.

Water tables have two major times of replenishment during the year, Boulay said. First, the amount of snow accumulated over the winter melts each spring, saturating the ground and running off into rivers, streams and lakes. Second, the rains during the fall before they turn to snow.

"When the plants stop drawing water, so, if we get rain now, from here on out, it'll recharge the soil ... and once that gets saturated then it can run off into the lakes," he said. "This is the time of year you can get that grand recharge. And if you are missing any of that, no snow in the winter, no fall precipitation, you are kind of starting off a little behind."


The Minnesota DNR features a LakeFinder portal on its website where curious individuals can read current, in-depth reports on any lake in the state database . The lakes are searchable by county and include reports on:

  • fisheries
  • ice in/out
  • water levels
  • water quality
  • aquatic plant survey results
  • mapping information

For a complete report on "The Drought of 2021," check out the Minnesota DNR website.

Lead Multimedia Reporter for the Detroit Lakes Tribune and the Perham Focus.
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