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The Great Lakes are the largest freshwater system on the Earth's surface, home to a fragile fishery, and delicate shoreline beaches and dunes. They are also central to northern Michigan tourism, economies and our way of life.

Public beach access affected by high water

Dan Wanschura
Interlochen Public Radio
Lake Michigan is nearing record-high water levels. The last high water record for June was set in 1986. As the water continues to rise, beaches shrink.

Michigan has complicated laws when it comes to private beaches and public access, and the rules for inland lakes are different from the Great Lakes.

The public owns the water on all lakes, ponds and rivers. The bottomlands (the land under the water) also belong to the public in the Great Lakes - but the land under inland waters belongs to property owners. 

Practically speaking, this means you can take a stroll on a Lake Michigan beach as long as you're below the natural high water mark.

"That would be the line where you can see the waves have gone up and cleared the vegetation and have left a mark," says Linda Alice Dewey, a freelance reporter for the Glen Arbor Sun.

But if you're inland, your feet have to be touching water.

A cold winter and wet spring have brought on near record-high water levels; Lake Michigan is inching closer and closer to June's record set in 1986. Beaches shrink or disappear as water rises, and that makes public access impossible in some spots, risky in others. It also complicates public access and private property rights even more. 


Dewey says the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an Indiana case challenging public access on private beaches on Lake Michigan. She says by declining, the court upheld the publics' right to walk the beach, but it has not made clear if the public can throw a towel down and relax below the natural high water mark.

Dewey says the lack of clarity leads to plenty of confusion. There have been private property signs put up in the wrong places in Leelanau County and property owners frequently (and incorrectly) shoo away boaters anchored near shore. She says it's really up to the Michigan legislature to clarify and simplify the rules.

This conversation was featured in an episode of Points North. Listen to the entire episode here.