A tale of two lakes

They say all weather is local.

That’s been especially true lately for two metro lakes on different sides of town.

White Bear Lake and Minnetonka are both destination lakes for boaters, sailors and homeowners. But when it comes to lake water levels, two large lakes in the same metropolitan area are far apart these days.

Lake Minnetonka: “Big Water”

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Map of Lake Minnetonka.

(Click to enlarge images)

Sprawling Lake Minnetonka brackets the southwest side of the metro. Some data from Hennepin County Library.



The meaning of the name Minnetonka is as follows: “Minne” is a term from the Sioux language meaning water; “tonka” is the term meaning big or great. from: 977.6U Upham, Warren. MINNESOTA GEOGRPAHIC NAMES, P. 224.


The number of islands in Lake Minnetonka varies according to the different definitions of islands. The 1993-revised U.S. Geological Survey topographic maps lists 38 islands. The 1944 Hudson’s Indexed Map of Lake Minnetonka and a 1964 map made by the Hennepin County Highway department lists 23 islands. Dredging and filling of the lake’s original features has created connected and obliterated islands.


The lake is made up of a number of a series of bays, points and islands with 31 interconnecting channels covering 22.2 square miles of water (14,043 acres) and 125 miles of shoreline.

The drainage extends over 123 square miles; the deepest point is Crystal Bay (101 feet). (Note: I believe the deepest point in Minnetonka is actually a 120’+ hole off of the mouth of Robinson’s Bay on the main Lower Lake. PH)

11 miles long,

6 miles wide

14,310 acres of water

101 feet deep (Crystal Bay) (?)

110 miles of shoreline

Contains 15 lakes of 3 different kinds

Formed by melting ice blocks in glacial moraines 15,000 years ago

929.4 feet above sea level at the outlet, Grays Bay dam

130,340,400,000 gallons or 400,000 acre feet water capacity

10.9 miles greatest length (Halsted’s Bay to Grays Bay)

30 feet average depth

April 12 – 17 is range of average ice-out dates

28 inches maximum ice thickness

20 – 24 inches average ice thickness

123 square miles is area of watershed, including Minnetonka

922.7 feet above sea level modern low water level, December 20, 1937

931.43 feet above sea level modern high water level, Sept. 12, 1951 Geo5020–Lake Minnetonka Information

The huge lake is really many different lakes biologically speaking. I’ve heard Freshwater Society founder DR. Richard Gray say the Lower Lake, the Upper Lake and Halstead’s Bay for example all have different water clarity and composition.

The outlet for Lake Minnetonka is Minnehaha Creek which drains from Gray’s Bay on the northeast side of the lake.

Minnetonka running high.

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High water at Deephaven boat docks Monday. (Photo by Luke Huttner)

As I touched on this morning, high water warnings are in effect for Lake Minnetonka this spring. You must operate with minimum wake anywhere inside of 600 feet from shore to prevent erosion this spring.

High Water Emergency Declared on Lake Minnetonka


“The Lake Minnetonka Conservation District (LMCD) has issued a high water declaration on Lake Minnetonka. According to LMCD Code Section 3.021, “High Water”, the Executive Director shall make a “High Water Declaration” when the Lake elevation is at or above 930.0 feet for a period of eight consecutive days, or has reached or exceeded 930.25 feet. On Monday, April 11th, the Lake’s elevation reached 930.29 feet. For this reason, the LMCD has initiated a “High Water Declaration”, effective immediately.”


Highest in 5 years!

As of Monday Lake Minnetonka is at the highest water level in 5 years! Some numbers:

930.17′ Monday’s lake level (above mean sea level)

+1.5 feet higher than last November

2006 last time Minnetonka was this high. (May 16th, 2006)

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Boat ramps underwater. (Photo by Luke Huttner)

Minnehaha Creek is raging thanks to a discharge of 250 CFS from Gray’s Bay Dam on Lake Minnetonka. The swift flow in Minnehaha Creek is considered dangerous for travel by canoe.

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White Bear Lake: Northeast metro jewel

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White Bear Lake in fall color.

White Bear Lake lies nestled between “desirable” residential communities in the northeast metro.

The lake is home to an active sailing club, beautiful lakefront homes, and provides numerous opportunities for boaters. White Bear also has some interesting history!

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Map of White Bear Lake.

White Bear Lake History :

(From the White Bear Lake Conservation District)

This history of White Bear Lake consists of vivid characters and tales of mystery. Some interesting historical facts:

It is believed that F. Scott Fitzgerald used White Bear Lake as the backdrop for his book, Winter Dreams. The name of the town in the book is Black Bear Lake. Fitzgerald was a summer resident on the lake.

In the Prohibition Era, many gangsters came to White Bear Lake to hide out when they were in trouble. Some famous gangsters believed to come to White Bear Lake are Ma Barker, Pretty Boy Floyd and Al Capone.

White Bear Lake got its name from a Sioux Indian legend about a Sioux hunter who killed a white bear on Manitou Island and whose spirit lives on Manitou Island still. Manitou Days is a celebration in honor of the white bear’s spirit.

Nine Indian mounds were located on the Northwest shores of the lake. The largest mound was located approximately where Shady Lane meets Lake Avenue. The mound was later destroyed and 17 skeletons were removed from it.

Land in the area was first available for sale in 1847 at a price of $1.25/acre. All of the land in the township was purchased by 1860.

The first settler in what is now the City of White Bear Lake was V.B. Barnum. He purchased land in 1852 between Goose and White Bear Lake. He built the first resort hotel on the lake which became the Leip House.

Manitou Island was developed in 1881 by the Manitou Implement Company and included water and sewer service.

On May 28, 1883, a committee was appointed “to act with town authorities and the different syndicates, owning property around the lake, to devise and execute measures for retaining and preserving the waters of White Bear Lake.”

Ice was harvested from the lake to build the Ice Castles for the Winter Carnival years ago. Many feared that the lake would have little to no water left from the hundreds of thousands blocks of ice removed from the lake. They had nothing to fear; the lake always replenished itself.

About White Bear Lake: (Info from White Bear Lake Conservation District)


“White Bear Lake has been a popular resort area since about the time of statehood. Along with Lake Minnetonka, White Bear Lake developed into a popular vacation destination, drawing visitors from hundreds of miles away. Parks, resorts, steamboats and hotels flourished in the late-1800s and early-1900s. White Bear Lake remains a popular lake for a variety of recreational uses.


The Basin

White Bear Lake has a surface area of 2,590 acres and a maximum depth of 83 feet – large and deep for metro lake norms. The lake has three distinct basins: the north basin which has a maximum depth of about 30 feet and an extensive littoral area (area where rooted plants grow); the west basin which is shallow with a maximum depth of 22 feet, and the southeast basin has a maximum depth of 83 feet.

Lake Level

Because of its large surface area and its small tributary watershed, lake levels in White Bear Lake fluctuate. Fluctuations of up to 2½ feet in one year and up to 7 feet over the lake’s history have been observed. The impact of lake level changes is magnified because small changes in vertical elevation result in large changes in the horizontal extent of the lakeshore. When lake level changes are extreme, many problems occur. During high water levels, flooding and shoreline erosion increase; and during low water levels, docks and piers are high and dry, navigation is hindered, and recreation is diminished.”

Playing catch up:

Things were looking pretty grim last October on White Bear. The lake hit an all time record low water level on October 19th, 4 feet below average and over 6 feet bellow the all time high water level on White Bear!

Again some numbers:

919.43′ record low level on White Bear last October

920.05′ level as of April 19, 2011

7″ rise in White Bear water level since last fall

923.42′ “Average” level for White Bear

926.7′ Highest level ever recorded on White Bear lake (June 20, 1943)

Slow to recover:

Even with 86″ of snow last winter, White Bear Lake has been slow to recover.

While Lake Minnetonka is up about 1.5 feet from last fall, White Bear only managed to rise about 7 inches. The biggest reason is that White Bear has a much smaller watershed than Minnetonka.

Prolonged drought in the east metro hit White Bear hard over the past few years.

Let’s hope the generous rains continue to fall on White Bear, so the lake can recover to normal levels in the coming years.


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