2019 : Record Water Levels on Great Lakes

August 13, 2019 all-day

A small town closes a bridge and starts up a ferry service. A homeowner spends tens of thousands of dollars on basement repairs. A mother weeps for her lost daughter.

High water has hit Michigan with devastation and misery. Beaches have disappeared, roads, bridges and parks have closed and swift currents have swept loved ones away.

Most of the Great Lakes are experiencing record high water levels, with depths ranging from 14 inches to nearly 3 feet above long-term averages. But high water is everywhere, not just along Michigan’s coasts. It has lifted water tables in inland communities, wreaking havoc from Detroit to Muskegon and from the Upper Peninsula to South Haven.

Researchers say heavy winter and spring precipitation is to blame, and so is climate change. Their predictions are for large variations in water levels in the future.

“Everyone’s cup is kind of overflowing right now,” said South Haven Department of Public Works Director Bill Hunter.

And that’s not necessarily a good thing. In some cases, it’s an emergency.

Spring flooding that washed away roads in Tuscola County in Michigan’s Thumb region led to a state of emergency being declared by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

A local state of emergency was declared in a section of Detroit in July allowing city workers to enter private properties to place thousands of sandbags to keep water from the Detroit River – and Lake St. Clair – from encroaching any further.

And emergency repairs started Aug. 5 in the Upper Peninsula where erosion from Lake Superior threatens the access road to the eastern side of the Porcupine Mountains.

High underground water tables mean residents nowhere near lakes are experiencing water in their basements and flooded and failing septic systems and sewage drain fields.

“It’s important to reiterate that it’s not just one lake that is experiencing record highs,” said Keith Kompoltowicz, chief of watershed hydrology for the Detroit District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.


Parks, roads, bridges close

When high Lake Michigan water levels washed over a bridge in the tiny village of Pentwater in May, it meant residents had to take a half-hour detour around Pentwater Lake.

The popular summer tourist town couldn’t wait for waters to recede, and it would’ve cost $815,000 to raise the bridge. So, the village and a nearby township pooled their resources and established a ferry operating as a water taxi.

Similarly, the bridge connecting the Muskegon County communities of Whitehall and Montague was flooded by White Lake and shut down in May, forcing drivers to take a 7-mile detour.

Much of Veterans Memorial Park in Bay City was underwater earlier in the summer, prompting the closure of the boat launch ramp there. Launch ramps elsewhere have been closed, including in Muskegon where tow vehicles could have gone into the water with the boats, according to city officials.

Chronic high water and flooding has prompted the city of Muskegon to run 24-hour pumps on a low-lying residential street that runs alongside Muskegon Lake, where portions of the community’s bike path also are underwater. Sandbags are placed along the shoreline to try to keep the water at bay.

In the Bay City area, officials are planning to have 40,000 sandbags available for residents impacted by high water, especially along the Kawkawlin and Saginaw rivers. Three of the five docks owned by nearby Bangor Township are underwater – despite having been raised repeatedly – and the U.S.S. Edson naval ship museum has at times been inaccessible after high water on the Saginaw River submerged its access bridge.

The examples go on and on.

Marinas are turning off electric power to boat slips due to the possibility of electric currents leaking into the water and causing electric shock drownings. Docks throughout the state are submerged.

In South Haven, access to a popular park, boat launch and marina has been partially blocked due to road flooding. That has led to a reduction in parking revenue the city uses to maintain its seven beaches, said Hunter, South Haven’s public works director.

Flooding also has disrupted residents living in the area, and city officials are consulting with engineers for a solution, Hunter said.

“As soon as they leave their houses, there is water they have to go through every day,” he said.

Michelle Watts on Aug. 6, 2019, stands near her home in Detroit's Jefferson Chalmers neighborhood where residents have used sand bags to combat high water that has plagued them for more than three months.

Michelle Watts on Aug. 6, 2019, stands near her home in Detroit’s Jefferson Chalmers neighborhood where residents have used sand bags to combat high water that has plagued them for more than three months.

City of Detroit workers have placed thousands of sandbags along banks and seawalls of the Detroit River and surrounding canals in the Jefferson Chalmers neighborhood on the city’s east side.

Michelle Watts, who lives about 12 feet from the river, has been dealing with flooding all summer. She had to raise the piers of the marina she operates when docks went below the water line.

“It’s very hard, very depressing,” Watts said. “We have no more emotion. It just drained us totally.”

Race against time

Amanda Holmes is in a race against time to save Fishtown, a popular and historic fishing village on the Leelanau Peninsula.

Perched on the Leland River between Lake Michigan and Lake Leelanau, the historic shanties are being undermined by high water that at times is like a “whitewater river,” said Holmes, executive director of the Fishtown Preservation Society.

Before water levels got real high this spring, Holmes was trying to raise $1.6 million to raise and repair the buildings. Now she said that amount has escalated “significantly” due to the need for new pilings and substructures.

Water is just inches below the docks on which tourists – whose business keeps Fishtown afloat – must walk, Holmes said. The oldest shanty, built in 1903, has been flooded and not usable for three months, she said.

High water threatens the historic Fishtown fishing village in Leland, Michigan. (Photo courtesy Amanda Holmes)

High water threatens the historic Fishtown fishing village in Leland, Michigan. (Photo courtesy Amanda Holmes)

The age of the Fishtown structures amplifies the need and concern for quick action. Holmes said repairs must be made before winter.

“Ice will form around there and can twist and take those buildings down,” she said.

All along the Great Lakes’ coastlines, high water erosion threatens homes, businesses and recreation areas. Once wide beaches are disappearing, and there is concern that another year of high lake levels could put a serious dent in tourism.

New high-water records were set in June and July for lakes Superior, St. Clair, Erie and Ontario, said Kompoltowicz of the Corps of Engineers. Lake St. Clair and Lake Superior also set records in May.

Lakes Michigan and Huron were about an inch from setting record highs in June and July, he said.

At Orchard Beach State Park in Manistee, a stairway to the beach has been closed due to erosion. Muskegon’s dog beach, a popular tourist destination since it is one of few on Lake Michigan where dogs are allowed, has become just a narrow strip of sand.

“Most of the people who go to the dog beach end up in the (dune) grass,” said Muskegon City Manager Frank Peterson. “It’s a pretty big tourist attraction for locals and visitors alike.

“If (Lake Michigan water) doesn’t recede a little bit, we might have a little something to worry about.”

Similarly, South Beach in South Haven has shrunk considerably – one estimate is by 70 percent, and city officials say unsuspecting visitors who drive long distances have been disappointed.

“The amount of space is dramatically less than in past years,” said South Haven City Manager Brian Dissette. “Some visitors are looking for beaches elsewhere.”

The good news for the city, and not so much for visitors, is that most of those other beaches are in similar condition.

About 250 miles of shoreline have been designated as high risk for erosion along lakes Michigan, Superior and Huron, according to the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy.

Bangor Township in Bay County is one of those high-risk areas. The Lake Huron beach at Bay City State Park is very narrow, said Bangor Township Supervisor Glenn Rowley.

Flooding is especially worrisome when northeast winds blow, and Rowley worries what fall storms have in store.

“We know that most likely there’s a big one that’s going to be coming,” Rowley said. “That’s the thing that’s scaring me the most.”

Lives are lost

One of the communities hit hardest by high water is Ludington, which endured one heartbreaking week when three people were swept far into Lake Michigan and drowned.

The first was 14-year-old Albrianna Huck, who was in the water at the city’s Stearns Park when strong current took her on July 18. She was rescued several miles north, but died later.

Just four days later, on July 22, swift water at Ludington State Park carried eight unsuspecting people out into high waves in what was described as a “chaotic” scene. Among them was 18-year-old Daniel McCarthy, the only one who wasn’t rescued by bystanders using inner tubes and kayaks. His body was found the next day 300 yards from shore.

The scenario was repeated on July 25 when Brian Herrmann, 38, of Brighton was swimming with his family at the same area at Ludington State Park. They were caught up in the fast-moving Big Sable River outlet to Lake Michigan and only Herrmann couldn’t be rescued. His body was recovered the following day 8 miles north of where he went missing.

The back-to-back tragedies took its toll on first responders.

“The tragic events that have taken place this past week and a half have been long and tiring for our emergency responders,” Mason County Sheriff Kim Cole wrote in a statement posted on Facebook.

So far this year, there have been 29 drownings in Lake Michigan, a 53 percent increase over the same period last year, according to the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project. There had been 60 in all the Great Lakes as of Aug. 9.

First responders form a line in the waters of Lake Michigan at South Haven to search for a missing swimmer on July 19, 2019. Two people were rescued. (Photo provided to MLive by South Haven Area Emergency Services)

First responders form a line in the waters of Lake Michigan at South Haven to search for a missing swimmer on July 19, 2019. Two people were rescued. (Photo provided to MLive by South Haven Area Emergency Services)

The numbers would be higher if not for some dramatic rescues. Two people were rescued off the South Haven pier within an hour of each other on July 19, forcing the shutdown of the popular South Beach. (That was less than a week after a 13-year-old boy drowned at the same area.)

South Haven Fire Chief Ron Wise, credited with saving an 18-year-old that day, said the high water has made conditions dangerous, especially with water over piers. Swimmers are ignoring red warning flags and people are taking unnecessary risks, Wise said.

He recounted one couple – a man pushing his wife in a wheelchair – who ventured out on the city’s north pier with waves crashing over it.

“We ran out there and yelled at them and they had no clue,” Wise said. “They were kind of irritated that we stopped them.”

‘A lot of catastrophe’

The high water has been good for business for John Fleming, whose company installs seawalls and other erosion control measures. But Fleming isn’t celebrating.

He empathizes with desperate property owners who call him seeking help. Every day, about a half dozen call his company, Fleming Marine based in Clare, but he can’t keep up.

“We’re busier than hell,” he said. “There’s a lot of catastrophe going on.”

Fleming does his best to provide advice and “coach” property owners through do-it-yourself shoreline protection projects. (He’s a big advocate of filter cloth and large rocks to control erosion.)

“I feel so sorry for these people,” Fleming said. “They’re freaking out.”

They’re also paying a lot of money – between $100 and $500 a foot, he said. The average job is 250 feet, meaning they’re paying between $25,000 and $125,000 to save their properties and structures from erosion.

And they’re not only along the coastlines. He’s trying to help residents of a Gaylord condominium who live on a small inland lake. Two years ago, they had 20 feet of beach but now they have crawl spaces that are full of water, he said.

“It’s a mess,” he said. “People are spending a lot of money.”

Carrie Albright is one of those people. She lives in the Ottawa County community of Spring Lake, about a half mile from Lake Michigan. Still, she’s had water in her basement since May – and the source is groundwater, she said. She and her husband Russ Albright bought pumps to clear the water, but it kept coming back, she said.

They ripped out the flooring and dry wall, and ended up having their basement floor jackhammered up too. New drain tiles were installed along with a new sump pump the last week of July. The price tag: $19,000.

Source : Lynn Moore, “High Great Lakes water levels cause havoc across Michigan“, MLive, August 13, 2019.