Down side of rising Great Lakes
The Great Lakes are coming back, but the rising water levels are reminding some Michiganians to be careful what they wish for.
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers officials are predicting that Lakes Superior, Michigan, Huron and Erie will likely be several inches above their long-term average in June. Lake Ontario's level, which is controlled, should be right at its historic level. Lake St. Clair, which is not part of the Great Lakes, will be 10 inches over that mark.
This is a reversal of fortunes from the past dozen years, when Michigan's boating season outlook included lake levels that fell below their historical average. Those low waters have meant headaches for anglers, marina operators and the shipping industry.
Many in and around the lakes have been waiting for lake levels to rebound closer to their historical averages because they allow commercial vessels to carry more cargo, recreational boats to get in and out of marinas and harbors more easily, and property owners to enjoy their more traditional shorelines. They also help stop the development of algae in shallow areas, which have created toxic blooms.
But the return of higher waters isn't necessarily welcomed by all, including the homeowners along Shore Drive in the southwest Michigan community of New Buffalo.
Since Halloween, when a major storm on Lake Michigan sent 20 foot-plus waves crashing onto shore for more than a day, the stability of the small bluff where homes sit has been a question mark. In years past, when the water level was as much as three feet lower, the storm wouldn't have been as much of a problem for the community near the Indiana border.
In the last two months, however, the ground between the water and the houses has been eaten away. As her backyard gradually disappeared, one homeowner moved out, fearing for her safety.
"The homeowner did not feel comfortable staying there, so she actually vacated the property and had all of the utilities disconnected," said Jay Guetschow, New Buffalo's acting city manager. "Our building inspector is keeping tabs on it because if it erodes back further to expose the foundation, then he'll have no choice but to tag it as uninhabitable."
Beaches around Michigan widened in recent years as the lake waters receded. The exposed sands can be washed or eroded away quickly.
"We expect to see rapid changes to the beaches," said Guy Meadows, director of the Great Lakes Research Center at Michigan Technological University. "What has built up over time can sometimes go away in a single storm."
The shifting sands can also make for dangerous beaches. Only the Polar Bear Club is likely to be swimming in the lakes anytime soon, but unstable beaches also can increase the opportunity for the creation of riptides. The dangerous tides, often linked to drownings, are created when currents break through off-shore sandbars, creating something like a jet stream.
The dilemma is different for marina owners 90 miles to the north of New Buffalo at Barrett Boat Works in Grand Haven.
Two years ago, with levels several feet below where they are now, the marina oversaw a $40,000 project to lower the facility's docks. Now that the waters are higher, it may be time to raise them.
"We spent a lot of money to lower the docks ... to make it easier for people to get in and out of the boats — which was great two years ago," general manager Randy Styburski told WXMI last month. "But now that the water level is higher, now when you pull a boat in there, you've got three feet of boat that you have to climb over to get back in ..."
Two years ago, these kinds of problems seemed unlikely. Early in 2013, Lakes Michigan and Huron set the record for the lowest mean average for any month since researchers began keeping track. The mean level for January — 576.02 feet above sea level — beat the March 1964 mark of 576.05.
Conditions since have been on a quick upward trajectory.
"This trend stretches across two years of very wet conditions," said Keith Kompoltowicz, chief of watershed hydrology for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. "The spring of 2013 was extremely wet, and we all remember the winter of 2013-2014 with the record levels of snow. And since then, 2014 was a very wet year across the board."
The Army Corps makes lake level predictions six months ahead of time and the estimates for June show:
■Lake Superior will be close to last year's level and five inches above its historical average.
■Lakes Michigan and Huron: 14 inches above last year and eight inches above their historical average.
■Lake St. Clair: eight inches over last year and 10 inches above its historical average.
■Lake Erie: six inches over last year and nine inches above its historical average.
■Lake Ontario will be slightly below its level of last year and right around its historical average.
The increases will be welcomed by the shipping industry, which was forced to take less cargo on ships when lowered waters produced shallower ports. The decreased payloads translated into millions of dollars in lost revenues in recent years, according to officials with the Lake Carriers' Association.
Those losses were compounded by last year's harsh winter weather that shut down shipping, resulting in an estimated loss of $705 million and 3,800 jobs.
With no relief in sight from Mother Nature, industry officials had been pushing for the federal government to address a backlog of dredging projects at ports around the Great Lakes. Now, the rising levels are being greeted as a positive, but not a cure-all.
"It's certainly great news if the water levels are going to remain up there," said Glen Nekvasil, vice president of the Lake Carriers' Association. "But there is still the need for the dredging work. Projections have been wrong before, and the lake levels are always fluctuating."