High lake levels submerge beaches in west Michigan

John Barnes
Special to The Detroit News

Rick and Chrissy Curran live on one of the loveliest sites on Old Mission Peninsula — on a bluff above the east arm of the Grand Traverse Bay, overseeing water that is Caribbean blue.

And their beach?

“What beach?” Rick Curran said.

High water is chewing up frontage land all along the Great Lakes. It is a major concern to property owners and shoreline protection groups, and welcomed by some pleasure boaters.

Jim Geisler maneuvers his 35-foot open Tiara to the boardwalk along the Grand River, just upriver of the Coast Guard Station near the mouth of Lake Michigan in Grand Haven.

“Just look. It’s better. It’s much better,” says Geisler, retired superintendent of Walled Lake Consolidated School District in Oakland County, as he ties off his boat in Grand Haven.

“A few years ago you had to climb up and out of the boat. Now you just step off,” the Norton Shores resident said.

Lake Michigan has risen 4 feet since January 2013, when it hit a record low. The lake could be just 1 foot shy of the 1986 record high by the end of the summer, said experts with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory in Ann Arbor.

The major difference this year is the levels never declined in the fall, climate expert Tim Davis said.

Rather, reduced evaporation, increased precipitation and a strong El Nino weather pattern boosted lake levels.

Davis will soon publish a paper refuting old hydrology estimating in support of a new model.

“The old model predicted a 2-foot drop in water levels. The new model estimates about 5 inches,” he said.

Howard Meyer owns the Bil-Mar Restaurant on Lake Michigan, south of Grand Haven State Park. He says he has lost perhaps 60 feet of beach, and respects the power of the water.

Meyer, who has been at the site 46 years, points to a glass display case with aged newspaper clippings from 1974 and 1985. They chronicle the devastating impact of high-water storms and dune erosion.

“This is I what I want to show you,” Meyer said. “They say storms like these are 10-year storms. Maybe they are overdue.”

Whether high water is good or bad news depends on what people value, said Alan Steinman, executive director of Grand Valley State University’s Robert B. Annis Water Resources Institute.

“We have short memories,” he said, noting the cyclical nature of Great Lakes water levels.

Short-term, high water is a gift for coastal wetlands, the shipping industry — cargoes are bigger because ship’s drafts will be deeper — and tourism, Steinman said.

It can also lead to “significant summer erosion” to dunes and damage to beachfront structures, he said.

Longer term, forecasting lake levels — given all the influences that go into them — is largely useless, Steinman said. “I don’t think you can safely predict beyond that for six months.”

Warmer water is another benefit. Average surface temperatures have increased by a few degrees Fahrenheit for much of the Great Lakes in recent years, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The increases are mostly due to warming during the spring and summer. The trends could relate to an earlier thawing of winter ice, according to the EPA.

Helen Jones of Norton Shores and her daughter Julie, 19, gaze at a relatively calm Lake Michigan during a break from their recent hike through Lake Harbor Park. A ribbon of shifting sand stretches north, between the encroaching lake and the dunes.

“If you looked down there five years ago, there was a lot more beach,” Jones said. “Now, I wonder where you are going to put your towel.”

Lakes Michigan and Huron are considered one body of water for measurement purposes because they are linked by a strait. Significant erosion has threatened local beaches and may damage other shoreline properties as forecasts anticipate this pattern to continue through the summer.

“This year it’s just devastating. It took everything,” said Rick Curran, 66, a retired General Motors Corp. worker from Flushing.

Never expansive, he estimates he lost 35 feet to 45 feet of beach since last year. If he puts his dock in for his pontoon boat, it will be at the foot of the wooden stairs from the top of the bluff to the beach.

“So far, the sea wall is holding ground, which is what the purpose is,” Curran said.

John Barnes is a freelance writer in West Michigan

Lakes Michigan and Huron

water levels

The two lakes are considered one body of water, since they are connected by a strait.

Water level for May 20: 580.12 feet

Projected change by June 20: +2 inches

Increase since May 20, 2015: 9 inches

Increase from long-term monthly average of May:

14 inches

Source: Department of the Army, Detroit District, Corps of Engineers