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Lake Level

The maintenance of Houghton Lake’s

level has long been controversial. During

periods of high water, low-lying properties

around the lake have the potential to be

flooded; during periods of low water,

navigating portions of the lake can be


A legal lake level for Houghton Lake

was first set by the Roscommon County

Circuit Court in 1926. At that time, the

lake level was controlled by a timber

dam located on the Muskegon River

about three-fourths of a mile downstream

of Houghton Lake. This dam did not have sufficient spillway capacity and periodic high and low water levels were experienced on the lake. The county authorized construction of a new concrete dam in 1938 in close proximity to the old dam. However, on the advice of

the contractor, the spillway of the new dam was constructed shorter than the length recommended by state engineers. An engineering study of the dam completed in 1954 by the Michigan Department of Conservation found that the dam and outlet channel could greatly restrict outflow from the lake. At that time, it was recommended that the dam be enlarged and that the outlet channel be deepened and widened. These recommendations were never



In the Department of Conservation report it was noted that: Observations during past years indicate that considerable development has taken place around Houghton Lake and that

low marshy areas, previously considered

undesirable, have been developed into lots

and sold. Large marsh areas were developed

and very shallow fills placed over these areas

to prepare cottage sites for sale. As the years

have gone by, the recreational public has 

observed Houghton Lake during the latter part

of summer and purchased lots when lake levels

were low. After construction of cottages on these

lots, at elevations very little above the ground

surface, trouble developed from high water levels

flooding out the land immediately around the

cottages themselves.


Flooding of low-lying properties occurred often during the period of spring ice break-up. To address this problem, the Roscommon Board of Commissioners petitioned the Roscommon County Circuit Court to establish a winter level for Houghton Lake.

In 1982, the circuit court ordered that the

legal lake level of Houghton Lake previously

established at 1138.1 feet above mean sea

level be maintained, provided that the level

be lowered to not less than 1137.6 feet on or

about November 1 of each year. The lake is

then restored to its summer level

commencing on or about April 15 or ice-out,

whichever occurs first in any given year. 



Thus, in recent times, an attempt has been made to maintain both a summer and a winter level on Houghton Lake. To the extent that the winter lake level can be maintained, some storage capacity exists in Houghton Lake to

accommodate the spring surge in level

without causing flooding. However, given the

operational limitations of the Houghton

Lake dam, it is not always possible to

maintain the desired lake levels. At times,

the level of the lake is significantly higher

than the court-ordered levels, even with the

gates in the dam fully open. Thus, it is

important that the dam always be operated

in a manner that prevents excess storage of

water above the court-ordered winter and

summer lake levels. 

Pursuant to court order, maintenance of the legal lake levels on Houghton Lake is the responsibility of the Roscommon County Board of Commissioners.

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