ERCOL Watershed

Largest Sub-Watershed of Grand Traverse Bay

The Elk River Chain of Lakes (ERCOL) is the largest sub-watershed of the Grand Traverse Bay watershed with 500 square miles of land, more than 60 square miles of open water, and 200 miles of shoreline. Home to 14 interconnected lakes and rivers, 138 miles of which are designated blue ribbon trout streams, this is a unique area with a significant impact on the region. From the uppermost lake in the chain, the waters flow 55 miles and drop 40 feet in elevation on their way to the Grand Traverse Bay. The ERCOL empties into east Grand Traverse Bay through the Elk River in Elk Rapids, providing approximately 60 percent of the bay’s input of surface water.

Villages in the ERCOL include Elk Rapids, Kalkaska, Bellaire, Mancelona, Central Lake, and Ellsworth. Characterized by a generally rural population and large portions of natural land cover, the ERCOL watershed contains a wealth of natural resources that contribute to the health of local human and wildlife communities. The lakes and streams found in the ERCOL are some of the most pristine inland water bodies in the entire country and provide a multitude of recreational and economic benefits for residents and visitors. The watershed includes several parks and recreation areas – including 36 public boat launches – that provide opportunities for engaging with its natural features.

The Elk River Chain of Lakes Watershed Plan Implementation Team (ERCOL-WPIT) was formed in 2011 to implement activities pertaining to the Elk River Chain of Lakes in the original Grand Traverse Bay Watershed Protection Plan. Organized by The Watershed Center Grand Traverse Bay and Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council, ERCOL-WPIT engaged lake associations including ESLA, local governments, area nonprofits, and interested citizens in collaborative efforts to protect and preserve water quality throughout the entire watershed. It includes priority action plans and will be useful to ESLA as we prioritize activities important to our lakes.

This plan states the top priority pollutants and stressors in the watershed are loss of habitat, sediment, and nutrients. The ERCOL Watershed Plan identifies lake/shoreline development/use, impervious surfaces/stormwater runoff, invasive species, road stream crossings, failing septic systems, riverbank development/use, agricultural runoff, climate change, industrial waste/oil and gas, water control infrastructure, and recreational activity as the top physical structures and human-driven actions within the watershed that have jeopardized or may jeopardize the watershed.

Elk River Chain of Lakes Watershed


Square Mile Area


Miles of Rivers & Streams



In the map below of the ER watershed, the darker blue shows the Elk River Chain of Lakes watershed. The lighter blue color shows the watershed for the remainder of Grand Traverse Bay.

Map of ER Watershed