Lawmakers seek state of emergency declaration for Lake Michigan shoreline

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

Near-record high water levels this year have pushed 12 state lawmakers to ask Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to declare a state of emergency for the Lake Michigan shoreline.

A letter sent Thursday by a group of mostly Republican legislators from West Michigan and Northern Michigan cited erosion and property damage as the reason the governor should seek the declaration, which would allow her to designate more resources for help, according to a statement by the Michigan House of Representatives.

More: Great Lakes levels expected to set or near record highs well into 2020

“What we’re witnessing along the lakeshore has been truly heartbreaking,” said state Rep. Bradley Slagh, R-Zeeland. “Homes and businesses have been damaged or destroyed by the effects of wind and water. Even state parks and local roadways have been tremendously impacted by the brunt of rising water levels of Lake Michigan.”

Slagh signed the letter along with House Speaker Lee Chatfield, R-Levering, and GOP state Reps. Triston Cole of Mancelona, Beth Griffin of Mattawan, Jim Lilly of Park Township, Jack O’Malley of Lake Ann, Brad Paquette of Niles, Scott VanSingel of Grant, Greg VanWoerkom of Norton Shores, Pauline Wendzel of Watervliet and Mary Whiteford of Allegan.

The sole Democrat to sign the letter was Rep. Terry Sabo of Muskegon. 

The Whitmer administration said it is reviewing the lawmakers’ request but indicated there are emergency resources already available that county emergency managers could tap but haven’t.

“Rising water levels have created tremendous challenges on Michigan’s shorelines. The Michigan State Police and its emergency response team remains ready, eager and willing to respond to all county requests for state resources as permitted under law," Whitmer's spokeswoman Tiffany Brown said in a Friday afternoon email.

"Although MSP has remained in frequent contact with county emergency managers along the lake shore, this morning the department reached out to all county emergency managers in the areas represented by the lawmakers’ request. To this point in time, MSP has received no requests for resources from county emergency managers.”

The request came as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reported Great Lakes water levels remained near record highs in November, despite below-average precipitation and seasonal decline.

The average levels for lakes Superior, Michigan, Huron, Erie, and Ontario were about a foot higher than the same month in 2018, according to the monthly bulletin from the Army Corps' Detroit office. The same applied to Lake St. Clair.

Those levels all were within 1-2 feet of record highs set in 1945, 1985 and 1986, according to the Army Corps.

The Army Corps projects that each lake will continue to be at near-record levels into early next year.

A dock left hanging in Stevensville.

The continued high levels signal that winter storms could bring more coastal flooding and erosion. Storms also could cause ice floes and jams, which could clog channels that empty into the lakes, affecting water flow and leading to flooding, experts say.

After a year of some of the worst flooding ever in parts of the Midwest, concern is rising that spring 2020 may see more high water in areas that still are struggling after deluges.

Record and near-record levels eroded shorelines across Michigan last summer and prompted state officials to streamline the permitting process to place sandbags along lake shore property

The Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy created a new permitting process to get temporary use of sandbags "as immediate stabilization measures to protect homes and other critical infrastructure," the state announced 

Due to the record-high levels in the Great Lakes and the bays and rivers linked to them, certain parts of beaches and shorelines disappeared all over Michigan during the summer. It included 37 state parks.

Water levels on lakes Erie and Superior had set records for four consecutive months headed into the fall. Lake St. Clair also set all-time highs for several consecutive months.

The Great Lakes Basin experienced its wettest 60-month period ending Aug. 31 in 120 years of record-keeping, according to corps records.

But November brought a brief lull in rain that has been driving high water levels with below-average precipitation recorded for each lake, according to the Army Corps. 

"Precipitation was closest to normal in the Lake Michigan-Huron basin, estimated at about 78% of its average," researchers said. "Totals were the lowest, as compared to average, in the Lake Ontario basin, at only 41% of average."

Despite the drier conditions, "all basins except Lake Superior received above average water supplies," the analysis said. "This is likely due to the influence of enhanced runoff from the wet weather in October."