• About the Watershed
• Watershed FAQ
• Concerns & Issues
• Management Plans
• MDNR Boat Launch
• Public Access Sites

• About the CLWA
• Water Quality
• Education &
• Zoning & Land Use
• Development
• Ad Hoc & Special
• Calendar
• Membership Form
• Newsletters
• References
• Watershedware

Selected Web Links

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& Watershed
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Crystal Lake and Watershed Association


Crystal Lake &
Watershed Association
P.O. Box 89, Beulah, MI 49617
Phone: (231) 882-4001
FAX: (231) 882-7810
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Frequently Asked Questions

Definitions, Features, Qualities, Issues, and Activities

See also: About the Watershed

Our Watershed FAQs are designed to inform you, our readers, whether you are a "lakie", "townie", or "fudgie." You are all important to our Watershed. Consequently, these FAQs and answers are the most important part of the CLWA Web site. The FAQs have been created to tell you:

  • About watersheds, in general, and,
  • About the Crystal Lake Watershed, in particular.
  • What the CLWA is doing specifically to protect the integrity of the Crystal Lake Watershed.

Our answers to several questions FAQs in five categories are intended to help educate riparian owners, nearby property owners, and visitors. Definitions, features, qualities, issues, and activities that collectively represent a watershed are outlined. Important issues and concerns need to be recognized, understood, and acted upon based upon past, present, and future needs for proper watershed management.

Click here for interesting FACTS about the Crystal Lake Watershed.

A. Watershed Definitions

1. What is a watershed?

John Wesley Powell, scientist geographer, put it best when he said that a watershed is: "That area of land, a bounded hydrologic system, within which all living things are inextricably linked by their common water course and where, as humans settled, simple logic demanded that they become part of a community."

2. How is a watershed defined?

There are two ways to define a watershed. One way is to include just the land around the Lake, i.e. the land that “sheds” runoff (rain water and snow melt). The preferred way is to include both land and water, since precipitation falls upon both surfaces. Another way to a watershed is to describe its morphology, the form and size of streams and lakes.

3. Where is the Crystal Lake watershed?

The Crystal Lake Watershed is located in Benzie County in Northwest Lower Michigan. Benzie County is the smallest county in Michigan. It is south of Leelanau County, west of Grand Traverse County, and north of Manistee County. Looking at a left-handed mitten palm down, Benzie County is above the first knuckle on the "pinkie" finger. The global position of the center of the Lake is at 44.659167 N Latitude; -86.156389 W Longitude.

4. Is the Crystal Lake Watershed connected to other watersheds?

The Crystal Lake Watershed, containing 17 sub-watersheds, is contiguous to the Platte River Watershed to the North, but is actually part of the Betsie River Watershed to the South. Both of these larger riverine (river) watersheds are in turn parts of the much larger Lake Michigan Watershed to the West. Crystal Lake is an "embayment" lake, i.e. it was once part of a large bay of historical Lake Michigan.

5. What is the nature of the Crystal Lake Watershed?

The Watershed contains, Crystal Lake, which is surrounded by steeply wooded bluffs, remnants of the last ice age. It is separated from the famous Point Betsie Lighthouse on Lake Michigan by sand dunes and forested hills. It contains parts of three townships around the Lake (Benzonia, Crystal Lake, and Lake); parts of three other townships (Homestead, Inland, and Weldon) are drained by Cold Creek. The Villages of Beulah and Benzonia are near the East End of Crystal Lake. The City of Frankfort and the Village of Elberta are near the West End of Crystal Lake (just over the hills), but are actually in the Betsie River Watershed.

B. Watershed Features

6. How deep is Crystal Lake?

The maximum depth of Crystal Lake is about 165 feet. Its mean depth is 70.70 feet.

7. What is the area of Crystal Lake?

The surface area of Crystal Lake is 15.4 square miles (9,854 Acres), making it the 9th largest inland Lake in Michigan! The total area (land plus water) of the Crystal Lake Watershed is 43.67 square miles (28,145 Acres) - not especially large compared to other watersheds in Michigan. What makes the Crystal Lake Watershed unique is that the surface of the Lake is about 35% of the total Watershed (land + water) - an unusually high percentage.

8. What is the perimeter of Crystal Lake?

The perimeter of Crystal Lake is 20.838 miles, the perimeter of the entire Watershed is 44.650 miles. The longest reach (greatest distance from shore to shore) is 8.11 miles.

9. How much water is in Crystal Lake?

Crystal Lake contains a lot of “crystal” clear water, almost a quarter of a trillion gallons (242,000,000,000 gallons, or 740,000 Acre-ft, or 0.22 cu miles). If this large volume of water were spread evenly over all of Benzie County (assuming it was flat and the water didn't soak into the ground), it would cover the land to a depth of 3’-8”, or just about head-high for a five-year-old!

10. What is bathymetry all about?

Yet another view of a watershed is to look beneath the surface of a lake on a hydrographic (bathymetric) map that shows contour lines of the water at different depths. The closer the “contour” lines for different water depths are together, the steeper the drop-off into deeper water. There is a long deep trench through the center of Crystal Lake where water depths exceed 150 feet (~ 50 meters).

11. What is topography all about?

Still another view of a watershed is to look above the surface of the lake on a topographic map, which shows contour lines at different elevations of the land. The hills around most of Crystal Lake make it unique among Michigan lakes. The highest hills (ridges) around Crystal Lake are about twice as high as the Lake is deep.

12. Why is It called “Crystal Lake”?

Because of its unique morphology among Michigan lakes – a relatively small watershed with a relatively small land-to-water ratio surrounded by wooded hills with a low level of development, runoff of fine sediment that causes turbidity (cloudiness) is limited. The water clarity is exceptional – hence the name, Crystal Lake.

13. What are some of the features of the Crystal Lake Watershed?

The Crystal Lake Watershed includes many diverse ecological features: the Lake, tributaries, wetlands, high ridges, and sand dunes. The Trapp Nature Preserve is located in the wetlands area of the Watershed. The Railroad Point Natural Area encompasses some of the high ridge area. The Pt. Betsie Dunes Preserve contains unique dune ecology. The Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore overlaps into part of the Watershed. The Crystal Lake Outlet flows into the Betsie River Watershed which includes ecological features of river wetlands and Betsie Bay connected to Lake Michigan.

14. What was the “Tragedy” of Crystal Lake?

In 1873 an ambitious but ill-advised project was put through in an effort to connect Crystal Lake and Lake Michigan with a navigable channel to facilitate the floating of logs to the lumber markets. Unfortunately, the difference in elevation between the lakes was not recognized and the Lake level dropped dramatically some 20 feet.

See also The "Tragedy" of Crystal Lake on our About the Watershed page.

15. What was the result of the Tragedy?

The drop in Lake elevation exposed a flat strip of sandy beach around the Lake, which is now filled with single-family cottages. This shoreline perimeter (almost 21 miles, and part of the annual Crystal Lake Team Marathon of 26 miles) is an unique feature of Crystal Lake.

16. What Is the current elevation of Crystal Lake?

The level of Crystal Lake is set by law at 600.25 feet above mean datum in the Summer and 599.75 feet above mean datum in the Winter (+/- three inches). The level is controlled by the Outlet Dam. The higher level in the Summer provides more water for boating and other activities. The lower level in Winter provides protection against wind and ice damage.

17. What Is the elevation of Lake Michigan?

Lake Michigan is a much larger lake. Its level rises and falls with season and climate, but is typically about 20 feet lower than Crystal Lake.

See aerial photos of Crystal Lake and Lake Michigan.

18. What Is the Character of Living?

The character of living within the Watershed is predominantly rural with single-family housing. The area is frequented by local residents, riparian owners, and vacationers.

19. What are the land and water uses?

Land and water uses within the Watershed are predominantly recreational, with some fruit farming and light manufacturing. Drinking water is supplied by wells; wastewater is treated by septic systems.

20. What is hydrology?

Hydrology is the science that deals with the occurrence, circulation, distribution, and properties of the waters of the earth and its atmosphere.

Learn more about the Hydrology of Crystal Lake & Lake Michigan.

21. What does a drop of water do in the watershed?

It passes from a vapor in the atmosphere through precipitation (rain and snow) onto the land and water surfaces, and ultimately back into the atmosphere by evaporation from water surfaces and by transpiration from trees and other plants. The total of evaporation + transpiration is called evapotranspiration.

22. Where does the water of Crystal Lake come from?

Water falls onto the Lake directly as rain or snow. It can also enter indirectly as surface water runoff flowing downhill from the surrounding land or from tributaries, including the major tributary, Cold Creek. Surface water can also percolate (seep) into the ground and flow downhill toward the Lake as groundwater (underground sources).

23. Where does the water of Crystal Lake go?

Water from the surface of Crystal Lake can evaporate into the air. Water can also exit underground as groundwater to Lake Michigan. Surface water from Crystal Lake overflows into Outlet Creek, a tributary of the Betsie River, which flows into Betsie Bay and on into Lake Michigan at Frankfort, MI.

C. Watershed Qualities

24. What is water quality all about?

Water quality is a measure of the condition of water for various uses - drinking, swimming, fishing, etc.

25. How is water quality defined?

Water quality is defined by the measurement over time of physical, chemical, and biological parameters on samples of water and sediment, and microscopic plants and animals.

26. What Are water quality parameters?

  • Physical – Clarity (or turbidity), temperature, conductivity, and oxidation/reduction.
  • Chemical – Dissolved oxygen (DO), acid/base (pH), nutrients (nitrogen and phosphorus), hardness, alkalinity, and other chemical elements.
  • Biological – Phytoplankton (microscopic plants), zooplankton (microscopic animals), benthic invertebrates, aquatic macrophytes (large plants), and fish.

27. What is the current water quality of Crystal Lake?

The water quality of the deepwaters of Crystal Lake is excellent as measured by all parameters - water clarity, nutrient levels, etc. It is an extremely oligotrophic lake, i.e. its water has very low levels of nitrogen and phosphorus nutrients, that in excess promote the growth of plankton and aquatic weeds. Some differences in the nearshore regions (where people spend their time) are occasionally noted depending upon the winds and waves, and the time of the year.

D. Watershed Issues

28. What is the immediate and long-term future for the Watershed?

The Watershed has passed from a pre-settlement stage, through the logging era, and is now well into a recreational phase. As the Watershed continues to be a mecca for travelers and retirees, it faces the demands and implications of increased development.

29. What is watershed management?

Watershed Management is a process of making informed decisions based on the uses and modifications of lands and waters within a watershed. The process is an opportunity for all stakeholders to balance their often competing uses for limited environmental resources, and to consider how their cumulative actions may affect long-term sustainability of these resources.

30. How is our Watershed impacted by human activity?

Human modifications of lands and waters directly alter delivery of water, sediments, and nutrients, and thus fundamentally alter aquatic systems. Effects of over-development can result in deterioration of water quality, land value, and the quality of life.

31. What is Environmental Sustainability?

Environmental sustainability can be defined as meeting the demands of the present without compromising the future. It usually deals with many factors - nature, economy, society, etc. It is not so much about maintaining life precisely as it is at one point in time. It is more about controlling the rate of change, and maintaining equity between generations. It is a continually evolving process. See also: Sustainable Development (Crystal Lake Watershed Overlay District).

32. What is the greatest concern for our Watershed?

The greatest concern for our Watershed is the increased development of our valuable natural resource. Changes in land use ultimately affect water quality unless proper planning is done.

Please see our "
Concerns and Issues" page.

E. Watershed Activities

33. What is the Crystal Lake & Watershed Association, Inc. (CLWA)

The Crystal Lake & Watershed Association, Inc. (CLWA) is a nonprofit (501c3) organization of concerned local citizens and environmental professionals committed to protecting the integrity of Crystal Lake, Benzie County, Michigan, for the enjoyment of future generations. We invite you to join us and learn about what's needed now to help protect and maintain our beautiful Crystal Lake.

34. What is the Purpose of the CLWA?

CLWA's four-part purpose is:

  • Protect and promote the natural qualities of Crystal Lake and its surrounding Watershed.

  • Preserve for future generations the beauty and recreational resources of Crystal Lake and its watershed.

  • Engage in water-quality monitoring, educational programs, promotion of harmonious land development, and promotion of the safe use of Crystal Lake.

  • Advocate and ensure the continued aesthetic beauty and environmental integrity of the Lake and its watershed.

35. How did the CLWA come to be?

The CLWA is a merger of two former organizations:

  • Crystal Lake Watershed Fund, Inc. (CLWF), and
  • Crystal Lake Association (CLA).

36. Who makes up the CLWA?

Membership in the CLWA is open to everyone. It includes both permanent riparian owners and part-time summer residents, local citizens, and visitors to the Watershed.

37. What are the activities of the CLWA?

The CLWA conducts activities in four areas: Water Quality, Education & Communications, Zoning and Land Use, and Development. The CLWA interacts with other organizations in cooperative environmental studies, educational programs, watershed management, and financial development issues.

WATER QUALITY - See our Web page


ZONING & LAND USE - See our Web page

DEVELOPMENT - See our Web page

The CLWA supports the development of alternative treatment units for wastewater, and its predecessor organization, the Crystal Lake Clean Water Committee was instrumental in the passage of a landmark ordinance regulating septic systems. The CLWA works with and supports local zoning boards, builders, and land owners to promote and follow responsible land use to ensure that future development will not harm the unique and desirable qualities of Crystal Lake. The CLWA has assisted in obtaining land gifts (which may be tax deductible) to the Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy in their efforts to preserve the quality of our lands and waters by retiring desirable land from future development.

38. What do I need to know about local ordinances that affect the Watershed?

Ordinances are a means of defining certain activities within a watershed community. Local regulations control land use, construction activities, soil erosion, vegetation cutting, and septic systems. The Crystal Lake Overlay District is specifically designed to address areas within the Crystal Lake Watershed.

Please see Health & Environmental Regulations for details.

39. What can I do to become better informed about our Watershed?

Everyone, regardless of where they live, work, and play, is intimately connected to a watershed. Concerned citizens can learn about watersheds from many available sources. Please feel free to use the information available on our site, and the many links to other information.

40. What can I do to protect our Lake and its Watershed?

Everyone, regardless of where they live, work, or play, is intimately connected to a watershed. The privilege of living in our Watershed carries with it the joint responsibility to use its land and water wisely and conserve them for future generations.

41. What can I do to help educate the public about the Watershed?

We are the public. Please share your personal needs and concerns with others throughout our Watershed. Become active in local issues affecting the quality of life within our Watershed. We must assume the responsibility for our Watershed for the privilege of being a part of it.

Interpretive Manual for the Crystal Lake "Walkabout" is designed to be both an Educational Primer for Students and a Reference Handbook for Property Owners and Visitors. (add link) It includes information on how to be a good citizen of our Watershed.

We are the public. Please share your personal needs and concerns with others throughout the watershed. Become active in local issues affecting the quality of life within our watershed.

Please feel free to contact the CLWA (at the address at the top of the page) if you have further questions or comments.


Glossary of Limnogical Terms with links to other glossaries.

Webbook:  "Understanding Lake Ecology - an Online Limnology Primer," Water on the Web, Natural Resources Res. Inst., Univ. Minn. Duluth, 2002,  


About the Watershed

Watershed FAQ

Concerns & Issues

Management Plan

MDNR Boat Launch

Public Access Sites
About the CLWA

• Water Quality

Education & Communications

• Zoning & Land Use

• Development

• Ad Hoc & Special Committees

• Calendar
• Membership Form

• Newsletters

• References

• Watershedware

Selected Web Links