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May 4, 2021

Why are Lake Michigan water levels rising?

Water levels in the Great Lakes in 2019 were the highest they’ve been since 1918. This is evident in our disappearing beaches along the coast. While the lakes have gone from high to low levels throughout the years, there are clear reasons why these swings have become more extreme in recent years.

Our record-breaking water levels can be partially attributed to our record-breaking precipitation throughout 2019 (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) and the beginning of 2020. A warmer atmosphere is able to hold more moisture. This precipitation is caused by climate change and will continue to increase.

“Overall U.S. annual precipitation increased 4% between 1901 and 2015, but the Great Lakes region saw an almost 10% increase over this interval with more of this precipitation coming as unusually large events.” — An Assessment of the Impacts of Climate Change on the Great Lakes.

A recent article in the New York Times points out that this problem is not going away any time soon, “The relentless high water is bound to bring more strife this year even as officials along the Great Lakes continue to promote climate adaptation strategies and resiliency.”

In addition to climate change, human practices in and around the Great Lakes can affect water levels. Dams and rerouting rivers and streams, for example, can add inches to the water levels. While these practices aren’t helping, they aren’t the main culprit.

Climate change is what’s causing more extreme changes in water levels. This includes low levels. High water levels are not the only danger to the Great Lakes region. The real danger is unpredictability. Climate change will continue to cause extreme highs and lows when it comes to water levels, posing threats to homeowners, agriculture, and infrastructure throughout the region.

How do I protect my home from the rising Lake Michigan water levels?

With water levels 3 feet above average, emergency shoreline restoration project permit requests have gone up by 50%, but these emergency methods aren’t the long-term solution. These water levels are going to continue to rise and fall to more extreme levels due to climate change, and are predicted to continue to rise in the coming months.

There are some initiatives working towards pausing human interference thought to contribute to the rising water levels. Dams operating in Ontario, for example, are adding nearly 42,000 gallons of water each second to Lake Superior. These practices, however, are estimated to add only inches to the Lakes’ water levels. In reality, homeowners need water levels to lower by feet.

While water levels continue to rise, homeowners are implementing emergency barriers including seawalls, sandbags, and rock revetments which can help curb damage in the short-term. A long-term solution could be found with proper funding.

The Chicago Sun Times points out “In the past, coastal protections have been piecemeal and often counterproductive. A protective wall erected in one place can result in erosion in another. What’s desperately needed is for the Great Lakes states and federal agencies to work in a coordinated and scientific way to protect land and infrastructure, as well as taxpayers’ wallets. That’s what the Great Lakes Coastal Resiliency Study could do.”

The US Army Corps of Engineers is working on getting this study funded in 2020. “The goal of the Great Lakes Coastal Resiliency study is to develop a programmatic coastal resiliency plan that outlines a collaborative investment strategy for the Great Lakes coasts, while creating a partnership and strong collaboration between the Corps of Engineers, Great Lake states, the Coastal States Organization, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, U.S. Geographical Survey, Federal Emergency Management Agency, and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. “

In the meantime, homeowners will need to continue to invest in their own shoreline restoration methods such as seawalls, rock revetments, bio-engineering, and relocating, as well as push for more long-term solutions to be put in motion.

Do I need a shoreline protection work permit?

The Michigan Department of Environment Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) requires permits for any construction along the shoreline. This includes rip rap, seawalls, and bio-engineering. This is because several erosion control methods have major adverse effects on the natural environment. We need to maintain the natural ecosystems along the shoreline in order to avoid making the situation worse.

According to EGLE, “Shoreline hardening that occurs with the construction of vertical walls (seawalls) has significant adverse effects on the fishery, wildlife and the overall water quality of a lake.   Where vertical walls are built the gradual transition from shallow water to upland is destroyed, wave reflection off vertical walls causes bottom scour to occur, stirs bottom sediments, increases water turbidity, and impacts spawning areas and aquatic vegetation.  Vertical faces block access to and from the water for turtles, frogs, and other fauna that need access to the uplands to feed, rest, and nest. Seawalls damage or destroy these important habitat areas and weaken the ecosystem.

Because of these negative effects of vertical walls EGLE recommends the use of natural shoreline treatments.  New shoreline hardening should be avoided where alternate approaches such as plantings and natural stone can be used to protect property from erosion.  The purpose and benefits of plantings/stone are to provide a natural transition between the open water and upland, while providing habitat.” Read more on this from EGLE here.

The Michigan Natural Shoreline Partnership explains: “Most activities that occur within or along the shoreline of inland lakes and streams are regulated under Michigan’s Inland Lakes and Streams Act.”

You will also need a permit if you are planning to alter any soil, vegetation, or topography within 500 feet of a lake or stream. The required permit to make these types of changes is a Soil Erosion and Sediment Control Permit and can be found on the State of Michigan site.

You can find other relevant required permits on the State of Michigan site as well.

Michigan has also expedited the permitting process to help homeowners get permission more efficiently. These permits used to take months to process, but are currently being processed in a matter of days due to the extreme circumstances.


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