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Lakes Erie, Superior set records as water levels surge

Breana Noble
The Detroit News
Estral Beach firefighters Courtney Millar, Eric Bruley and Chase Baldwin kayak down Lakeshore Drive in the south end of Estral Beach in Berlin Township last month.

Detroit — Wet spring weather has pushed Lake Erie’s water level to its highest point in more than 100 years.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said Tuesday the shallowest of the Great Lakes hit the highest level of its period of record in May, surpassing the previous peak set in 1986.

Lake Superior and Lake St. Clair also reached their highest levels for the month of May, though they have been even higher at other times of the year.

High levels of precipitation since 2014 across the Great Lakes basin have fueled the recent rises and contributed to flooding in some areas, said Andrew Kornacki, public affairs chief for the Corps district office in Buffalo, New York. Precipitation in the region last month alone was 21% above normal.

It is up to waterfront property owners and municipalities to take action to prevent flooding, though the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers can provide technical assistance to help coastal communities that work with the state of Michigan for guidance on placing sandbags. The Corps also can provide some direct assistance.

"It's added up to this point right now," Kornacki said. "There would be no strategy to prevent the high water because it's caused by nature."

Lennie Ritchie of LaSalle takes a video of the Lake Erie waves crashing the shoreline in Luna Pier as minor flooding started in May.

Harrison Township declared a state of emergency to allocate $120,000 a month ago to purchase 150,000 sandbags to construct a levee along Lake St. Clair. But with eight more inches predicted by July, Supervisor Ken Verkest said. He predicts the Macomb County township will spend more. So far, it is the worst flooding the community has seen since 1986.

"Residents might drive from their homes to the expressway and have no idea this is happening," Verkest said. "In other areas, we've have had homes condemned because they didn't put up sandbags or they weren't able to stop the water."

The township has pumps to prevent stormwater from making the flooding worse and a dam that is holding back three feet of water. The Macomb County Sheriff's Office also recently provide nonviolent, non-drug related prisoners to place sandbags.

Frenchtown Township in Monroe County also had to use its water pumps to remove water from Lake Erie overflowing the dikes in the community's resort district that were completed last year after residents approved a millage, said Fire Chief Wendy Stevens. The flooding occurs when winds change from their usually eastward direction to go west.

The flooding, however, is not as bad as last year when water breached a dike and caused roads and homes to flood.

"We don't want people to be afraid," Stevens said. "Always be prepared, but we're ready to help. It's not the lake height that does this. It's the wind."

The Corps began measuring Great Lakes levels in 1918, though other water level recordings go back further than that and were not included in the report, said chief watershed hydrologist Keith Kompoltowicz of the Corps district office in Detroit.

Kompoltowicz said Lakes Huron, Michigan and Ontario might also set records this summer. The Corps says flooding and coastal erosion threats will continue along Great Lakes coasts, especially during storms.

"When there's a big storm or heavy wind, that pushes the water on shore and is what causes the flooding and damaged shorelines," he said.

The National Weather Service's climate prediction center says there is no significant chance of above-average precipitation over the next month, but it is predicting a "slight chance" for an above-normal precipitation season over the next three months, meteorologist Kevin Kacan said. The Detroit area is almost 3¾ inches above normal rainfall year to date, but is far from record-breaking, he added.

The Corps is advocating for federal funding for a resiliency study of the Great Lakes coast, which could identify areas to help strengthen the shoreline in instances of low and high waters, Kornacki said.

"A comprehensive study," he said, "could help us to understand that coastline and identify areas for potential projects that would be beneficial for a long-term solution."

Associated Press contributed.