Can drastic measures lower Lake Michigan water levels? Shoreline property owners think so
On a cold and windy afternoon in Manistee, Ron Wilson trudged through snow to check on his shuttered cottage.
Not much changed since he was last there — which is good — because just a few feet of land separate the beach house from Lake Michigan.
“We once had a deck out here,” says Wilson, pointing behind the house. “But the storms in mid-October just took out all the beach in front of us.”
Ron Wilson’s great-grandfather built the cottage in 1933. Since then, it’s been the spot for huge family gatherings every summer. His son even got married on the beach here six years ago.
But during a big storm this fall, huge waves from a brimming Lake Michigan shook the walls of the modest house. Wilson feared nearly 90 years of family memories were crashing to an end.
“I was crying, because you could sense that this was going to be the last time we were going to be seeing the cottage,” he says. “The cottage was going to be falling into the lake.”
Luckily for Wilson, it wasn’t the end. A local contractor came out just in time to dump a bunch of boulders into the water in front of the cottage — a sort of breakwall — to limit more erosion from the high waves.
But Wilson wants more than just a breakwall; he wants lower lake levels.
Looking for solutions
Wilson is also the president of the Great Lakes Coalition an alliance of several thousand property owners concerned about preserving their shoreline. On behalf of the Great Lakes Coalition, Wilson wrote a letter to the International Joint Commission or IJC, asking for drastic action to lower lake levels.
The IJC is an advisory organization made up of three Canadian commissioners and three U.S. commissioners. When there’s an issue on any body of water that borders the U.S. and Canada, including the Great Lakes, the IJC helps resolve it. When water levels are extreme, shoreline property owners often look to the IJC for possible solutions.
What Wilson and the Great Lakes Coalition have suggested is this: Let more water out of Lake Michigan through the Chicago River and restore the natural flow of a couple Canadian bodies of water.
“Reverse the flow back into the Hudson Bay as opposed to coming into Lake Superior and that would reduce the water levels by 6 to 8 inches,” says Wilson. “Plus, increasing the flow [through the Chicago River] would be a foot, and that would be a lot.”
Experts argue that particular amount isn't realistic, but most do agree it would be a matter of inches instead of feet.
In the 1940s, an Ontario power company diverted water flowing into Long Lac and the flow of the Ogoki river in Canada. They did this by building dams to generate hydroelectric power.
Before the dams, water from Long Lac and the Ogoki flowed north into Hudson Bay. But after the diversions were built the water flowed south into Lake Superior and down through the entire chain of Great Lakes. In a report by the International Joint Commission those two diversions raised the average water level on Lake Michigan by over four inches.
Wilson thinks reversing Long Lac and the Ogoki back to their natural flow, plus a few other tweaks here and there, could lower water levels on Lake Michigan and ease the pressure on shoreline property owners — even if it’s a matter of inches.
But it turns out the proposed solution is more complicated than that.
Not a realistic solution
“Manipulations of those diversions is not something the IJC can do," says Jeff Kart, an executive editor with the IJC. “We don’t have control over those diversions. Changes to the Long Lac and Ogoki Diversions are governed by the Province of Ontario, and the Chicago Diversion is governed by a U.S. Supreme Court ruling.”
The Great Lakes Coalition is hoping the IJC would make recommendations to those governing bodies. But Kart says even if the diversions were reversed, it really wouldn’t have much of an effect for shoreline property owners in Michigan.
“The IJC did a report in 1988 that found that closing the Long Lac and Ogoki Diversions could reduce the level of Lake Michigan by about 2 to 3 inches, but it would take two years,” Kart says.
That’s because the Great Lakes system is so huge.
Kart says they’re getting slammed with requests from people worried about their property and wanting the IJC to do something about it. He says it’s natural for them to want to look for someone to solve their problems, but it’s not the IJC.
Great Lakes expert Peter Annin sympathizes with those affected.
“I feel for the people who are so frustrated by these water levels,” Annin says. “I really do.”
Annin directs the Mary Griggs Burke Center for Freshwater Innovation at Northland College in Wisconsin. He also wrote the book, “Great Lakes Water Wars.”
“The hard part about Great Lakes water levels, is that what’s good for you can actually hurt someone else, he says. “What I hear and what we tend to hear regularly are solutions that hurt other people and those aren’t really solutions.
Annin says the cost of solutions like those proposed by the Great Lakes Coalition would be high both economically and environmentally.
For example, shutting down the two dams in Canada and restoring the natural flow of the Long Lac and Ogoki’ River would cost Ontario Power Generation revenue and electricity generated by the dams. Electricity cost for residents in the region would also spike, and a whole lot of water would suddenly be back in the Hudson Bay watershed after not being there for a long time.
“That whole ecosystem up there has over, almost, three-quarters of a century gotten used to not having all that water around,” Annin says. “You’ve got cottages up there, you have First Nations people who live up there.”
So where does that leave people like Wilson of Manistee? People in desperate need for something to be done to save their shoreline property? Annin says the reality is solutions like the ones being talked about are unrealistic.
“I think the solution, as frustrating as it is, is adaptation,” Annin explains. “I don’t think it’s going to be realistic to try and wrap our big arms around this entire globally significant system that has 20 percent of the earth's fresh surface water and think we can wrestle it to the ground and control it.”
Right now, Lake Michigan is over three feet higher than its average for December, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers predicts levels will only get higher in 2020. But Annin says we have to learn to live with this volatility.
“I don’t think we’re going to be able to fix it,” he says. “And that doesn’t sound like a solution to a lot of people, I understand that, but I don’t think it’s realistic to think we’re going to be able to engineer our way out volatility on a basin-wide basis.”
In the meantime, property owners can put boulders down, like Wilson did, and hope.