High Great Lakes, big storms put Michigan shoreline at risk

Leonard N. Fleming
The Detroit News

Bangor Township — The waters of Saginaw Bay now dominate where Julie Schultz and family used to have their own personal paradise of a beach, which vanished as a result of rising lake levels.

As fall descends and winter draws near, Schultz knows there will be more consequences from these high levels — ice build-up against her sea wall and heavy water constantly smacking her windows and house near Bay City. But she said she wouldn't trade her home and location for anything — at least not yet.

"The splashes hit our windows now," said Schultz, 47, as she motioned to the water and rocks that overran her jetties and sand. "This is our first year without a beach. It (was) a super sad summer for us.

"Look at this," she said, waving her hand toward the seemingly endless bay. "We love it out here. It won't cause us to leave, I don't feel."

Because of the record-high levels in the Great Lakes as well as the bays and rivers connected to them, many beaches and shore lines disappeared all over Michigan during the summer, including 37 state parks. Conditions haven't relented much this fall.

High winds and continual waves recently pounded the shores of west and northern Michigan, causing flooding that cut off a Coast Guard station in Manistee from the rest of the town for two days and that hit a Traverse City park.  

In early October, steady rain and Lake Michigan's rising tides resulted in portions of scenic Lake Shore Drive in Chicago being closed for two hours because of flooding. And Lake Erie's high levels have caused flooding that has endangered roads  on Peelee Island, a Canadian island south of Windsor.

Although water levels are slightly receding, more fall and winter storms could bring more coastal flooding, erosion and ice floes and jams that could create havoc for residents living and working near those areas.

When the lakes freeze over in winter, areas like the St. Clair River could experience ice jams that clog the channel that empties into Lake St. Clair and impedes water flow and causes significantly flooding, experts said. Or problems for marinas in areas like the Luna Pier region with an elevated Lake Erie.

Officials from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which track lake levels and forecast them out at least six months in advance, say there is a high probability of problems stemming from more rain and high winds. The Great Lakes Basin endured its wettest 60-month period ending Aug. 31 in 120 years of record-keeping, according to the Army Corps.  

Even as the waters recede, they mostly are going to remain well above average over the next six months, said Keith Kompoltowicz, chief of watershed hydrology at the Corps' Detroit office.

"And heading into the fall, which is the time of year where we can see very substantial storms move through the Great Lakes, the impacts that we've experienced so far like coastal erosion and coastal flooding, those impacts are likely to continue should we get those typical fall storms roll through the basin," Kompoltowicz said.

"The storms that we tend to see in the basin are accompanied by very strong winds and those strong winds will create tremendous waves along the coastlines, and those waves could potentially lead to significant shoreline erosion and coastal flooding depending on the strength and duration of the winds," he added.

Killarney Beach resident Julie Schultz of Bangor Twp. talks about the rising waters of Saginaw Bay as she stands on the seawall behind her house. She says her beachfront was three times larger when she and her family moved here years ago.

Sleepless nights

The record lake levels have led to sand bagging from Bay City to St. Clair Shores to Detroit and damaged docks on the east and west sides of Michigan.

They also have caused $550,000 in emergency repairs in the Upper Peninsula's Porcupine Mountains state park for armoring along the Lake Superior shoreline at the main entry road to the park's east end. And last week, a combination of high lake levels and wind-driven waves swept away up to 20 feet of dunes along the Lake Michigan shoreline, according to the National Weather Service.

Lakes Erie and Superior have set or tied all-time monthly records for the past four months, including preliminary September data. The level for lakes Michigan and Huron is a foot higher than last year but hasn't set any records, while Lake St. Clair has set all-time monthly highs for four consecutive months, according to government data.

Bill Thorson, 76, lives three miles south of Schultz on Bay Shore Drive in Bangor Township and a few hundred feet from a shoreline that's a graveyard of zebra mussel shells. But the shoreline is quickly eroding, now covered by water that has a small section of remaining weeds jutting out.

In the 1940s and before, Thorson said the bay water used to be 20 feet from the home he grew up in and his father's boat in the backyard. In the decades since, he's watched the water recede, then encroach and recede again. Now the water is moving toward his home.

Bill Thorson, 76,  and Jean Tude Thuot, 74, of Bangor Twp., talk about the rising Saginaw Bay waters behind their Bayshore Drive houses.

"If we were to get a good Nor'easter, I think we'd end up with water back in the house again, I really think that," Thorson said. "There's probably going to be some water, but you can deal with that.

"I feel more empathy towards the people down that way that are closer because of ice damage. Once this freezes, and that ice moves, there's nights that we don't sleep because when the ice cracks, it sounds like a gun going off."

Jean Tude Thuot, 74, who lives next door to Thorson, isn't big on talk of climate change and that the lakes will overrun residents and drive them from their homes. The process is cyclical and will eventually recede, she said.

"We're still out a long ways than what it was 25 years ago," she said.

The only thing Thuot said she is mildly worried about are the ice piles coming up on her property. Even those don't scare her.

Flooding a threat

But more than 150 miles south, the coming winter concerns Mary Briskey, the vice president of the Luna Pier Harbor Club marina in Monroe County near Toledo and off Lake Erie.

Last spring, the elevated waters lifted some of the club's cement docks off the pilings and as well as the ramp facility, causing $20,000 in damage, Briskey said.

"When ice freezes, it rises," she said. "And sometimes when it goes down, it doesn't just go down gently. If we get more snow and ice, we probably will have more problems."

Gaps between the boat slip piers and the berm at the Luna Pier Harbor Club marina in Luna Pier show the  erosion that occurred due to high lake levels this summer.

The harbor club is 1,700 feet off Lake Erie, Briskey said, but "depending on how the wind blows, it brings the water in. We're kind of a protected harbor here, but we still do get the levels of the water rising and lowering."

Luna Pier city officials have similar worries based on past experiences.

The "ice does sometimes pile up" on Lake Erie and will cause damage, Luna Pier Mayor James Gardner said. A dike designed to protect the area from flooding is 40 years old, but "this dike system's not going to last forever" with the rising waters and resulting damage, he said.

"Lake flooding is definitely a threat in the fall," Gardner said. "We're definitely concerned. We tell everybody to have a plan just in case. And the kind of damage we get when it floods, it really doesn't ruin structures, it just makes a terrible mess."

Ice floes a danger

On the St. Clair River between lakes St. Clair and Huron, the chief worry is about the ice floes that could jump up the waterway and ultimately cause flooding along the shoreline, said Justin Westmiller, director of homeland security and emergency management for St. Clair County.

"It could potentially be a very challenging year," he said, noting there were problems last year but the potential is for "this year to be worse."

Places such as Marine City, East China and Algonac face flooding going into the winter with ice floes and jams, Westmiller said.

"As that ice starts flowing down the river and as the shipping traffic goes through there, it gets continually broken and starts stacking up in the choke point and potentially causes flooding," he said.

"A large portion of homeowners in the waterfront communities are probably very worried about it. ... As soon as we starting getting the heavy ice floes, it could be as early as December, and it could go all the way through February and March."

In Leland, the historic commercial fishing and retail center called Fishtown is endangered by the rising tides of Lake Michigan, as the Leland River has swollen and flooded the shanties. The infrastructure projects for which residents were raising $1.6 million have spiked to $2.5 million due to the higher water levels, said Amanda Holmes, executive director of the Fishtown Preservation Society.

With winter coming, Holmes said, "we are definitely concerned because the water is up over the bottom of the shanties. And it freezes in the river. The last several years, it has frozen and we've had our docks jacked up. There's serious risk to those buildings."

State parks and beaches have been decimated, too. Sixteen parks along Lake Michigan, six adjacent to Lake Superior and 15 along Lake Huron have experienced significant erosion of beaches, said Ron Olsen, the state parks chief for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.

McLain State Park, in Houghton County off Lake Superior, had to be rebuilt for $4.1 million given five years of erosion, Olsen said. Others such as Orchard Beach State Park in Manistee County off Lake Michigan, Muskallonge Lake State Park in Luce County off Lake Superior and even Detroit's Belle Isle have suffered from rising water levels.

Olsen said is he worried about the winter months creating more damage.

"A lot depends on the weather patterns and if Lake Michigan and a large amount of Superior and others freeze over — that will ensure that the water levels will be higher next year," he said. "Now if they don't freeze over and it stays open, evaporation will take place and it's unlikely that the lake levels will rise as fast as they think."

On the west side of Michigan, officials worry about eroded beach lines along Lake Michigan. 

Gale-force winds on Lake Michigan and Grand Traverse Bay have caused water to erode and collapse the parking area at West End Beach in Traverse City, seen on Oct. 16.

"We have over the last couple of years lost beach because Lake Michigan is up at one of its highest levels" since the 1980s, said William Hunter, South Haven's director of public works who oversees the beaches there.

Hunter, who has spent more than two decades working on the shores of Lake Michigan from Muskegon to Grand Haven, said more property owners are investing in beach and shore erosion control and are bracing for winter.

"Maybe seven years ago, people came to South Beach and they're like, 'Wow, look at all this beach.' Now they show up and ask, 'Where did it all go?' It's there but Lake Michigan is up in its cycle."

Back up in the Bay City area, Kathy Dwan and her family have a dream home with a personal beach out in back on the bay. While bad weather might come this fall and winter, she said she isn't concerned. Like others in the area, she said she views the issues arising from rising lake levels as part of living near the water.

"I'm not concerned about the ice affecting us, but down the beach it probably will be an issue," Kwan said.

No matter what, Thorson loves his home on the water despite what may come this fall and winter.

"I've been here all my life. I won't move," he said. "If I have to put a tent up, I'll still be here."


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