Great Lakes water levels surge; some record highs predicted

Leonard N. Fleming
The Detroit News
A U.S. Army Corps of Engineers report released Monday says the lakes have been rising steadily for several years and are getting an extra boost as winter’s melting snow mingles with recent heavy rainfall.

Water levels will surge to record highs in some areas of the Great Lakes over the next six months, federal officials predict.

The lakes have been rising steadily for five years and are getting an extra boost from recent heavy rainfall and melting snow from the winter, according to a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers report released Monday.

Levels on Lake Superior and Lake Erie are expected to break records set in the 1980's sometime during the next six months, according to the Army Corps’ Detroit district office. Army Corp officials said they forecast expect “definite” record high levels for St. Clair and Erie in May.

“Several months of wet weather, including a significant snowpack across the northern Great Lakes basin, and recent heavy rain events have pushed water levels higher than originally forecast,” said Keith Kompoltowicz, chief of watershed hydrology at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Detroit District.

The rising lake levels are not attributed to climate change but rather to above average wet weather, including during the past several seasons.

Records are not predicted for Lakes Michigan, Huron and Ontario, but they still are anticipated to experience significant rises. 

Higher lake levels can mean more erosion, less beach and less room for watercraft to pass under bridges. But an increase in levels has the benefit of providing more clearance from underwater obstacles and helping prevent the need for costly dredging of harbors.

Coastal flooding and shoreline erosion will pose threats, especially during heavy storms, Kompoltowicz said. Strong winds could also prompt flooding to connecting channels to the Great Lakes, he said, as happened during recent flooding in Wayne County.

Lake levels, which depend on precipitation and evaporation, have recovered substantially from January 2013, when lakes Huron and Michigan set record lows.

The predictions signal a remarkable turnaround from earlier in the decade, when low water levels spelled trouble for shippers and marina owners.

Lakes Huron and Michigan fell to their lowest points in 2013 and the other Great Lakes were significantly below normal. That was the nadir of a nearly 15-year slump that stranded pleasure boats, forced cargo vessels to lighten loads, dried up wetlands and fueled conspiracy theories that water was somehow being siphoned off to the parched West.

“It’s quite the shift,” said Keith Kompoltowicz, chief of watershed hydrology with the Corps’ district office in Detroit. “Now we’re at the other extreme.”

Lake Superior, which holds more water than the other four combined and sends them a continuous flow through its southern outlet, is about 15 inches above its long-term average level for this time of year, and 9 inches higher than a year ago. Lake Erie is 26 inches over its long-term average.

Great Lakes levels are known to fluctuate over time. But experts said the prolonged drop-off of the past decade and the more recent rise likely result at least in part from a warming climate.

“These events are quite consistent with what scientists have been expecting with long-term climate change patterns,” said Drew Gronewold of the University of Michigan’s School for Environment and Sustainability. “The challenge is that it’s very hard to forecast when those extremes are going to occur and when the transition between them might occur.”

Kolleen Jones, co-owner of the Betsie Bay Marina in Elberta, Michigan, said the recovery was a blessing. The previous owners were hammered when levels dropped so low that many of the 95 boat slips were unusable.

“We were considering not even buying it,” Jones said. “Now, we’re working our tails off to raise our docks to get them out of the water.”

The low water was costly for ships that haul iron ore, coal and other bulk commodities between Great Lakes ports. Things are much better now, although with water so high, vessels must slow down on rivers and channels to avoid creating wakes that damage shoreline docks, said Glen Nekvasil of the Cleveland-based Lake Carriers’ Association.

“These vessels have very high operating costs and anything that lengthens a voyage adds to those costs,” Nekvasil said.

Another sign that the pendulum may have swung too far for comfort: flooding and erosion, which the Corps expects to worsen. The agency dispatched a technical team Monday to help with proper placement of sandbags in Sodus, New York, where Lake Ontario overflows loom. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer declared an emergency last week because of flooding in southeast Michigan.

Storms that have battered the central U.S. this spring have filled Great Lakes tributary waters while kicking up big waves that are eroding shorelines, said Guy Meadows, director of the Great Lakes Research Center at Michigan Technological University.

“We expect lake levels to fall again but this episode of high water is going to take a couple of years to work its way through the system,” Meadows said. “It’s going to be a big hit.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.