By Stephen Tuttle | March 21, 2020
There are other issues.
While we've been out panic shopping — seriously, how many dozen eggs and giant cans of beef stew do we plan on using? — and wishing President Trump would lighten his makeup and step away from the microphone, Lake Michigan has still been creeping up.
Lake Michigan-Huron — the hydrologists refer to it as a single entity — has been rising somewhat steadily since historic lows in 2013. And it's risen a lot, nearly six feet in those seven years. Six feet might not sound like much, given the size of the big lake but each inch of rise represents 800 billion gallons of new water.
Water levels set new records in January and February and, according to the Army Corps of Engineers, will set new records every month for the next six months.
The simplest explanation is the inflow of water into the lakes has been greater than the loss from evaporation. The last five years have been among the wettest — some say the wettest — on record in Michigan. It's a similar situation in the rest of the Great Lakes basin. We've had a benign winter here, but it's been wet downstate and snowy in the upper reaches of the watershed.
The ground becomes saturated and streams and rivers full, and the water has no place to go. Meteorologists at the National Weather Center, part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), project a warmer and wetter spring than normal, continuing the cycle.
The best science right now is this is part of a natural cycle. Water levels in the Great Lakes have always ebbed and flowed, expanded and shrunk. It's assumed we're at an extreme peak of such a cycle, and the lakes will inevitably recede.
Evidence connecting lake levels to climate change is scarce, though if extra precipitation becomes the norm, there will be dots to connect.
There is one climate-related and little-discussed impact: wetlands, now being inundated with water, serve a valuable function as natural storage facilities for carbon dioxide. Once completely underwater, that storage capability is unlocked, and the CO2 releases. Some is absorbed by the water, but some finds its way into the atmosphere — an unwanted addition to an already existing problem.
The high water is more troublesome than just the damage it's doing to the shoreline, as we recently learned from Governor Gretchen Whitmer's Michigan High Water Coordinating Summit.
According to the Michigan Department of Transportation's Director of Bureau Development, at least 40 roads have already been destroyed, damaged, or are in imminent risk. He expected more would soon be similarly impacted as the waters continue to rise. Temporarily repairing those roads that can be repaired would cost at least $5 million, and permanent fixes would come in at about $100 million.
It isn't just roads and personal property at risk. The state's $104 billion agriculture industry is being battered by the precipitation onslaught, especially downstate. Last year Michigan farmers left 920,000 acres unplanted, and the man in charge of Rural Development at the Michigan Department of Agriculture predicts that acreage will increase this year.
The impact of high water has been pretty obvious locally.
West End beach has lost part of its parking lot and most of its sandy beach; Clinch Park is down to a strand of beach (in what surely is an irony, the marina has had to close the boat launch because it's underwater); Empire Beach is nearly gone; Fishtown in Leland is in a state of perpetual flooding with every wave event, and some establishments are lifting their buildings to get above the water; East Bay Park now features a tree about 15 yards out in the water; and a higher water table is flooding local basements.
Lakeside homeowners are scrambling to protect their property with a variety of solutions. The state says it is fast-tracking permits for shoreline mitigation, but for some it's too late; the lake has already taken their home or cottage.
While it's easy to understand the desire to protect property, the concern is what the shoreline might look like if or when the water recedes. A patchwork of rip-rap and various attempts at seawalls (most permitted; some not) will create an unusual patchwork of concrete and stone where a shoreline once existed.
There isn't much, or anything, the government can or should do to regulate water levels in the Great Lakes. We could at least develop some consistent, statewide regulations for shoreline mitigation efforts to avoid the crazy quilt look.
And, if this turns out to be an unexpected consequence of climate change and is going to be the new normal, we have to create some stricter guidelines, moving new construction farther away from shorelines and riverbanks.
COVID-19 will eventually go away. Lake Michigan's high water might not.