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Record lake levels could force $100M in road fixes

Leonard N. Fleming
The Detroit News

Lansing — Rising water levels in Michigan have prompted state, federal and local officials to discuss ways to prepare for their effects and repair damages, especially for infrastructure such as roads.

Brad Wieferich, director of the Michigan Department of Transportation, said officials are eyeing 40 locations around the state that are affected by high water and flooding.

Wieferich said that the cost in the short term could be $5 million "but the price tag depending on what the ultimate fixes are," such as repairs to slopes or physically removing roads, could rise to $100 million. Unless federal grants are available, that would come out of MDOT's budget.

“These things get expensive in a hurry,” Wieferich said. He described the $100 million figure as a “back-of-the-envelope” estimate based on initial consultation with engineers.

Enormous sand bags have been placed along the shoreline of Lake Michigan to protect houses close to the water in Holland, Michigan.

The officials gathered Monday at the state's first High Water Coordinating Summit in Lansing to discuss how to handle the costs associated with rising waters, eroding shorelines, and detriments to agriculture and property.

Officials from EGLE, the Department of Natural Resources, state police, agriculture and transportation departments, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. Coast Guard and the legislative branch were part of the summit.

"We talk a lot about Great Lakes erosion, but it's about inland lakes and streams as well because of how saturated we are in the state," said Liesl Clark, the director of the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy. "And that point was made very clearly by our federal partners. We've gone from record low to record high in record time on the Great Lakes. So in the last six years, lake levels have changed faster than ever before."

The summit, convened by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, is designed to bring leaders together "to have a conversation about what are the challenges in front of us and trying to figure out where we are going together," Clark said.

Participants at the summit at Lansing Community College's West campus also discussed plans to have town hall meetings across the state so officials can talk to residents about the plans.

Michigan had the wettest 12 to 60 months in recorded history, state officials said at the meeting.

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

Lakes Michigan and Huron, which are measured as one body of water, saw highs for the month of January that eclipsed marks set in 1987. Lake Superior surpassed a record high set in 1986, the Army Corps of Engineers office in Detroit said.

The Michigan High Water Action Team formed at the summit will meet regularly about the rising waters.

The Michigan departments of Transportation and Natural Resources are anticipating dealing with infrastructure challenges due to the rising waters.

"I don't really have a comprehensive price tag for the kinds of impacts that we could be seeing," said Dan Eichinger, director of the department of Natural Resources. "They kind of run the gamut from certainly shoreline erosion that impacts structures ... marinas, other recreational facilities like that."

The increased wet conditions across the Great Lakes basin are spurring the rise in lake levels and, with warmer-than-average temperatures in December, there was greater runoff due to snowpack melting on Lake Superior, Corps officials said.

Clark said one of the main goals to figure out how "do we face the predicted increasing water levels in a more comprehensive, coordinated and prepared manner."

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Associated Press contributed