3 Great Lakes, St. Clair poised to break water level records
Three of the five Great Lakes and Lake St. Clair are poised to set records for high water levels, a ranking U.S. Army Corps of Engineers expert confirmed Monday, continuing a rising trend weighing on business and property owners from Sault Ste. Marie through the east side of Metro Detroit to western New York.
"It's likely all lakes but Michigan-Huron will set record levels in the month of June," Keith Kompoltowicz, chief of the Detroit District's watershed hydrology office, told The Detroit News. "Going back to 1918," when the Army Corps began keeping records, "the levels have never been higher."
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It's the latest reminder that the persistent rains of spring have to go somewhere, namely down through the Great Lakes watershed stretching from Minnesota to the St. Lawrence River. The Detroit District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said Monday that lakes Superior and Erie set "new monthly mean" high water levels in May, as did nearby Lake St. Clair. And the water kept rising in June.
Just how high is not likely to be known until later this week. Because of a national holiday Monday in Canada, June's "monthly mean" levels for the lakes — the official metric used for record keeping — will not be calculated until Tuesday. And the six-month, monthly mean water level forecast for the July-to-January period is expected to be available Wednesday.
Great Lakes water levels historically fluctuate because of rainfall, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, increasing runoffs into tributaries. Record high water levels in 1986 fueled by higher-than-average rainfall in the Upper Midwest for 15 of the previous 18 years impacted residents and businesses.
The deluge back then prompted an assistant engineering chief for the Army Corps of Engineers, Donald J. Leonard, to tell the Los Angeles Times: "It's the worst we've ever seen. We're establishing new records every month."
This year is in position to break several of the records set in 1986. That's when Michigan and Huron, considered one body of water by the Army Corps of Engineers and other experts, St. Clair and Erie reached their highs. Superior hit its high-water mark in 1985, and Ontario peaked in 2017.
As of Sunday, according to the Army Corps' weekly Great Lakes Water Level Update, lakes Michigan-Huron, Erie, Ontario and St. Clair were all up 33 inches from their monthly averages. Superior was up 16 inches. By the end of July, the Army Corps of Engineers predicts Lake Erie's water levels will see a net decrease of four inches and Lake Ontario a net decrease of seven inches. Lake St. Clair is likely to see no net change in its high level by July 28.
"High water levels and potentially record high water levels are expected to persist for at least the next six months," the Army Corps said, "so flood-prone areas are expected to remain vulnerable. Outflows from Lake Superior through the St. Mary's River, and Lake Michigan-Huron's outflow into the St. Clair River, are projected to be above average in June. Lake St. Clair's outflow through the Detroit River is also forecasted to be above average."
The rising levels are causing headaches for businesses and property owners with the unofficial start of summer heralded by the Fourth of July holiday. Docks are underwater, shorelines are eroding, beaches are disappearing and the cost of property damage is likely to rise.
Melinda McCullough, who has lived on Lake St. Clair in New Baltimore for about 20 years, estimates she has helped fill thousands of sandbags to protect her home and others in the community this year.
Pumps are running continuously to keep the street from flooding. And McCullough is now pursuing the expensive task of raising her seawall to protect against the rising water.
"It's an epic battle," she said of the efforts. "We haven’t had anything like this ever before."
Lake St. Clair is so high that it is 2 to 3 inches over the seawall at Grosse Pointe Woods Lakefront Park, located in St. Clair Shores. The parks department originally sandbagged the park, but then built a dike inside the sandbag perimeter with lumber and crushed stone. Despite that, sections of the parking lot around the marina are under water.
Homes on the canals in St. Clair Shores have sandbags along the waterfront, and water washes into yards during easterly winds or when passing motor boats leave wakes. At last Friday’s annual Jobbie Nooner raft-up party on the lake, sections of the lake that were at knee level in previous years were at chest levels.
"Lake levels are expected to exceed average water levels from this time last year by 10 to 15 inches with the exception of Lake Ontario, which is forecasted at 28 inches," the Army Corps of Engineers said in its weekly water level update.
"The levels of Lake Superior and Lake Michigan-Huron are projected at a net increase of 1 inch at this time next month. Persistent precipitation into the summer has contributed to the basin being 20% above its historic cumulative average for this time of the month."
Staff Writer Mark Hicks contributed to this report.