Great Lakes continue breaking record-high water levels

Jun 17, 2020

Water levels in the Great Lakes are really high right now. Lakes Michigan, Huron and Erie are all breaking records and creating all sorts of problems for communities on their shores.

Sunny skies and Lake Michigan stretching out as far as the eye can see – it’s why thousands of tourists normally flock to the small northwest Michigan Township of Arcadia during the summer months. 

“We call this Sunset Station, because it is such a picturesque evening," says Arcadia Township Supervisor Janice McCraner. "You can just watch the sun hit the water as you sit out here and enjoy it.”

McCraner says record high water levels destroyed the township’s popular beach. Instead of gently-sloping sand leading out to the water, high waves and erosion have created 20-foot sand cliffs that drop off sharply, making access to the water impossible for many. 

“With the storms that we had this fall, it really took a toll on the park," she says. "By this spring, concrete had broken off and we had lost the better part of the expansion that went out to the beach, which as you can see now, we have no beach.”

That’s a new reality for many communities along the Great Lakes shoreline as water reaches unprecedented levels.

And if tourism uncertainty over the pandemic isn’t enough, properties are sliding into water from Lake Superior to Lake Ontario. Docks, marinas and harbors are underwater, and roads are getting washed out. 

Peter Annin studies the Great Lakes and teaches at Northland College in Ashland, Wisconsin. He says the communities which are defined by these large bodies of freshwater, are panicking.

“What’s really confounding for them now is that they love these lakes, but these lakes are pounding their property and their shoreline," Annin says. "They’re being challenged by the lakes that they love in new and very frustrating and very financially damaging ways.” 

Estimates of road damage alone from the high waters tops over $200 million just in Michigan. In New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo has pledged $300 million to raise roadways and protect other infrastructure along the Lake Ontario shoreline.

Many communities and property owners are responding to the high waters by armoring the shoreline with sheet piling and large boulders. But Annin says that’s both expensive and controversial, and not a guaranteed fix.

“Rather than try and engineer these lakes into what we might want or some people might want them to be, it is a much more cost-effective long-term approach to adapt to these massive water bodies,” he says.

That approach includes things like bigger setbacks for shoreline construction and better zoning laws. That might be the only practical way to approach building around the Great Lakes as high-water levels could become more normal.

Every month this year, Lakes Michigan and Huron have broken records for average water levels set back in the 1980’s. Last month Lake Erie was about 30 inches above average. According to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, high levels are expected for all the Great Lakes for at least the next six months.

Drew Gronewald is a hydrologist at the University of Michigan, and says the rising water levels are mostly because of rain.

“Three of the highest years of precipitation across the lakes have been in the past 10 years when we look back to 1950,” he says.

Gronewald says oceans are warming, and that in turn affects weather patterns worldwide. Recently, that's meant more moisture for the Great Lakes region. So, for the eight states around those lakes, dealing with higher water levels will likely be a challenge for years to come.