Belle Isle visitors cope as flooding slowly recedes

Evan James Carter
The Detroit News

Detroit — High water levels in Belle Isle's canal didn't stop Meredith Zammit-Julius and her niece Isabella Zammit from enjoying a sunny morning kayaking trip on Thursday.

"You can't get under the bridge as easily, but we still enjoyed our time," said Zammit-Julius. However, the Royal Oak resident had to scrap recent plans to bicycle around the island because of flooding.

Flood water surrounds Shelter No. 14 along The Strand just east of Vista Ave., on Belle Isle, in Detroit.  Recent flooding on the island came close to swamping an electrical substation that provides power to the entire park.

Waters have begun to recede from Belle Isle since they reached a high point on July 10, when they threatened Detroit public lighting's substation on the island, knocked out power at the U.S. Coast Guard station and flooded the Belle Isle Boathouse. That forced the facility to cancel 17 weddings. 

The water level has dropped both in the island's three inland lakes and in the Detroit River. Michigan's Department of Natural Resources, which has managed Belle Isle since it became a state park in February 2014, has relied on three mobile pumps to help keep water levels down.

When water was at its highest point, large parts of the eastern half of Belle Isle were underwater and, according to DNR park manager Karis Floyd, when a freighter passed on the Detroit River, its wake would send a wave over a portion of that area.

Clifton Webb, left, of Detroit, walks his three-year-old male Blue Nose Pitbull named, 'Baby,' as Chuck Stewart, right, of Bayonne, NJ rides his bike through flood water along The Strand on Belle Isle, in Detroit. Recent flooding on the island came close to swamping an electrical substation that provides power to the entire park.

"This is not something we even expected to deal with this year," Floyd said.

While much of the northeastern area of the island is still closed due to flooding and construction, Floyd said Belle Isle was always open to visitors, even when the water was at its highest level. The DNR has been dealing with high water on the island since the Detroit Grand Prix in late May and early June.

"We should be able to bring (water) down 4 to 6 inches on the island, which would be a significant improvement from what we have now currently," Floyd said.  

Floyd also said that as a result of the flooding on Belle Isle, the DNR is planning to build a dam just outside of Blue Heron Lagoon on the northern end of the island. 

According to Lauren Fry, a civil engineer and hydrologist with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the high water level of the Detroit River, which is a major contributor to flooding on Belle Isle, is a localized impact of an issue affecting the entire Great Lakes water basin.

The monthly mean lake-wide water levels in Lakes Michigan and Huron were nearly at their highest levels in more than 100 years and came within an inch of those lakes' respective records for June, she said.

"We're seeing lakeshore flooding in other places too ... the impacts kind of depend what the lay of the land is like and what the meteorological conditions are like," Fry said. "Erosion and flooding are the major concerns (throughout the Great Lakes Basin)."

The primary drivers of changes in the water level of the Great Lakes are precipitation over the lake, evaporation and runoff, Fry said.

The road next to the U.S. Coast Guard Station on Belle Isle is still flooded even as flooding has begun to recede on other parts of the Island

Andrew Arnold, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service office in White Lake, said the elevated levels in the Detroit River are likely due to a combination of local rainfall and heavy snow melt from this past winter going into Lake Superior.

"They had quite a bit of snow that fell up there this past winter, so that's exacerbating the issue down here," Arnold said.

Detroit has seen 21.37 inches of rainfall up to this point of the year, according to measurements gathered at Detroit Metro Airport. This is 2.64 inches more rainfall than the area would experience in an average year but less than the 22.96 inches Detroit had seen by this time last year according to the National Weather Service.

Jim Barkatt and Jessica Marzicola, both from Chesterfield Township, didn't let the high water levels in the Detroit River prevent them from fishing Thursday.

"When I've come here before, you've been able to stand on the rocks near the water and cast a little bit further out," Marzicola said, adding that having to cast further back from the water had already cost her a few fishing hooks.

Barkatt looked relaxed while he placed bait on his hook.

"It's challenging to say the least, but it's still fun," Barkatt said. "The walleye (have been) biting, so that's good."

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