On Beaver Island, Lake Michigan laps at the edges of properties. In Petoskey, 100 yards of a shoreline bike trail washed out into Little Traverse Bay. On Mackinac Island, Lake Huron flooded M-185 and caused a months-long closure.
The Great Lakes are currently experiencing record high water levels, and the evidence is obvious in Northern Michigan’s coastal communities.
“Lakes Michigan and Huron reached monthly mean record high levels in 2020,” said Jennifer McKay, policy director at the Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council. “Because of that, we’re seeing more issues with erosion and damage to both the shoreline area and properties as well as parks this year than we’ve seen in the last few years.”
As the Great Lakes surge, the resulting ripple effects spread out across the region and the state. Inland lakes and waterways rise, shoreline habitats erode, infrastructure damage skyrockets — and property owners and local officials are left looking for appropriate solutions.
According to the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, Michigan is experiencing the wettest one-, three- and five-year periods since data recording started 120 years ago.
Many monthly mean record high levels were set on the Great Lakes in 2019, and in January the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Detroit District, warned that the water levels on each of the Great Lakes were starting 2020 higher than they had the previous year.
“It is likely that water levels on lakes Michigan and Huron will set new monthly mean record high levels over the next six months,” said John Allis, chief of the Great Lakes Hydraulics and Hydrology Office, Detroit District, in a February press release. “This sets the stage for coastal impacts and damages in 2020 similar to, or worse than, what was experienced last year.”
The first three-quarters of 2020 continued to see many new records on the Great Lakes. Over the summer months of 2020, lakes Michigan-Huron set new monthly mean lake levels in May, June and July, beating records set in 1986 for all three months.
Images of erosion damage on Beaver Island show a wooden staircase descending from a cliffside home that now dangles out over open water, the ground beneath the steps washed away into Lake Michigan.
Beaver Island, the largest island in Lake Michigan, has seen significant damage from erosion in the last year.
“On Beaver Island, they’ve had huge issues where there’s been incidents where homes have been in danger and they’ve actually had some septic systems that have been exposed and have fallen into the lake and had to be addressed,” McKay said. “There’s been a lot of issues with high waters this year.”
Kevin Boyle, president of the Beaver Island Association, said a combination of eastern storms and high water levels in the last year and a half has caused erosion issues to occur more frequently.
“It’s occurred, in particular, in the last year because we had a lot of storms that came out of the east,” he said. “Strong storms with strong wave action came on the east side … the majority of (the damage) is on the east side of the island.”
Pam Grassmick, a resident of the island’s east side, has lost trees and a wooden breakwall on her property.
“It breaks my heart,” she said. “A lot of it really, especially when you live out in the middle of Lake Michigan, entails planning, because December can come and you won’t be able to get any supplies to help shore up your property if your house is overhanging. I’m sitting here on my deck right now looking at three houses and one of them is definitely overhanging the water. My heart goes out to people. These are places that some people have had these for generations and they would like to continue to enjoy them, but it’s very difficult for people at this time. Some people just don’t have the finances to deal with this, too.”
Damage on the island ranges from losing beachside fire pits to compromised septic systems to the destabilization of home foundations.
“The most minor things are people whose houses are well back from the water and don’t have any infrastructure near the water, other than fire pits and stairs that go down bluffs to the lake,” Boyle said. “Losing those things, to people having wells and septic systems damaged or washed out, losing the footings of their decks. People have had decks collapse off the front of their houses. And there’s some instances where the foundation of homes have been threatened.”
As McKay also noted, rising lake levels can pose a threat not just to property, but to public health as well.
“There are a number of potential issues when we have high waters,” McKay said. “We see flooding, erosion, high water tables. Millions of dollars of damage to private properties and public infrastructure. But we also see that water levels are impacting community water systems. High ground water tables can pose problems for inland lakes with respect to flooding and septic systems and drinking water wells. So when the ground water table is inundated, that can cause septic systems to no longer function properly, which can result in basically raw sewage flowing freely into the inland lakes and also potentially into the drinking water wells. It can contaminate both the water resources as far as the lakes themselves, but also it can be a public health threat.”
Damage to lakeside roads has also been a side effect of rising water levels.
One example is Beach Drive, just east of Harbor Springs, which has seen multiple instances of wave damage and erosion issues in the last two years. In April, high waves pushed debris into the road, and the previous fall saw significant erosion result from a high wind event.
In November 2019, storms also caused a portion of M-185 on Mackinac Island to crumble. The island’s car-free highway runs in an 8.2-mile loop, which is a popular path for tourists. But, for most of this summer, emergency repairs were underway to get the road reopened.
According to a July 9 report from Bridge Magazine, 40 state-owned highways and bridges are seeing high-water-related damage. Brad Wieferich, director of MDOT’s Bureau of Development, told Bridge the department will spend about $5 million this year to “keep things passable.”
Kendall Klingelsmith, director of the Petoskey Parks and Recreation department, estimates “we’ve got millions and millions of dollars of repairs” for shoreline issues.
“We’re looking at it basically from a priority standpoint, from a public safety and public health standpoint, and from where are we going to get the money from?” he said. “Is it federal dollars? Is it state dollars? Because certainly Petoskey isn’t the only one hit. All these coastline communities are in the same position we are. The dollars are going to be hard to come by.”
Petoskey has seen a variety of shoreline erosion issues in the last few years. In July 2019, a section of shoreline at Bayfront Park broke away. Roughly 15 to 20 feet of bank was lost.
In April, a section of the Little Traverse Wheelway bike path between Magnus Park and East park collapsed into Little Traverse Bay. The 23-mile trail runs along the bay from Charlevoix to Harbor Springs and is poplar with cyclists, dog walkers and others during the summer months. Cyclists now need to bypass the closed section of the trail on busy U.S. 31 in order to continue their ride.
“The biggest conversation is the Little Traverse Wheelway, and what’s going to be the future of that?” Klingelsmith said. “We don’t necessarily like to see bikers and everybody up on U.S. 31, but … If you want to ride your bike from Charlevoix to Petoskey, you can’t avoid going on U.S. 31.”
Klingelsmith said the city has three or four different studies being looked at right now to address some of the most serious shoreline erosion issues.
“We’ve gone from record low to record high waters in six years, versus a 30-year cycle,” Klingelsmith said. “It’s been happening. We really started to notice areas that had to be addressed last year. When we build stuff close to the water, that is bound to happen. This has been an ongoing conversation in this community and there’s no cheap and easy fixes for it.”
One study, for example, is looking at converting the Petoskey city marina to a floating dock system. Another, with results expected back this week, deals with the Little Traverse Wheelway. The city has been working with other entities affected by the trail washout, including Emmet County, Resort Township and private property owners, in that process.
“We’ve worked with the state, we’ve worked with the trails council, we’ve worked with the county and the township, and we’re collectively all trying to make the best of what we have,” Klingelsmith said. “Certainly, we can’t just replace 100 yards of trail that doesn’t exist anymore, that’s washed out into the bay. There’s just a lot of critical infrastructure that’s gone. I don’t know how else to say it, but when the shoreline’s gone it’s gone.”
In the meantime, Klingelsmith said it’s difficult to come up with a plan to mitigate further damage when the water levels keep changing.
“We have these solutions based on this year’s data, but next year’s could come back that would modify the designs,” he said. “Honestly, I think we need to see a few years of the water levels receding before a whole lot of an investment is made for a lot of these permanent expenses and fixes. And those are just the critical areas. We have areas all up and down the shoreline that aren’t even addressed with the study that, at some point, they’re concerns but they don’t rise to the level of panic quite yet.”
It’s not just land-based recreation that is seeing an increased threat from rising water levels.
“We’re also seeing a lot of debris out in the water bodies that previously wasn’t there,” McKay said. “As far as boating is concerned and recreation, we’re seeing that it’s potentially more dangerous. There’s been some incidents where boaters have hit structures that they didn’t realize were underwater, because previously they would have been exposed.”
On Beaver Island, Grassmick has seen firsthand how treacherous waters can be when there is hidden debris.
“Here around the island, we are sort of in the enviable but yet unfortunate position where a lot of the bluffs here on the island are sand,” she said. “And so what’s happened is between the high water undercutting into the bluff and the wave action coming predominately from the north, northeast, it’s really created a lot of hazards in the water. We’ve had 200-year-old trees floating by, we’ve had people’s docks, numerous staircases. For boaters, there’s a lot of navigational hazards as well as the destruction to our shoreline.”
Mike Johnson, harbormaster for the City of Harbor Springs, said the city marina hasn’t seen too much of an impact from high waters, “other than we did have to raise several of our lower fixed docks. We did that just by adding sections of extra decking.”
They also added bubblers to their bubbler system, which is a protective measure for docks in the winter that keeps the water agitated so that ice doesn’t have a chance to form and cause damage.
Johnson added that he has heard some concerns from boaters about not being able to get into several popular marinas, including on Mackinac Island and Beaver Island, where high water flooding docks has caused power issues.
The DNR also warned that high water levels can lead to overflow onto docks and land from boat wakes.
According to an August 2019 report from the Sault Evening News, residents of Sugar Island and Neebish Island took their concerns about wake from large vessels in the St. Marys River causing dock damage and erosion to the Chippewa County Board of Commissioners. County officials said, at that time, that the issue was largely due to high water conditions, as opposed to ships moving too fast.
Rising water levels can also pose a threat to native flora and fauna.
“It depends on the species,” McKay said. “With the high water tables, a lot of the Great Lakes coastal wetlands are disappearing and have been flooded. And coastal wetlands are extremely important for a number of fish species. About 200 of the Great Lakes fish species rely on coastal wetlands at some point in their life cycle. Also, migratory birds rely on the Great Lakes coastal wetlands, so it can have significant impact.”
One of the state’s most vulnerable species, the endangered piping plover, makes its nests exclusively on beaches. According to the Michigan Wildlife Council, plovers can be found at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore and other shoreline locations on lakes Michigan, Huron and Superior.
Jillian Farkas, piping plover coordinator with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, said plovers prefer sparsely vegetated open beach, perhaps with some type of pebbly rock to use when building nests and objects to hide behind or blend in with.
In 2020, piping plover nests were recorded in Wilderness State Park in northern Emmet County and on High Island, located in the Beaver Island archipelago. Only one of the three nests in Wilderness State Park was successful, producing three chicks.
“This year, we did have several nests across the Great Lakes region that were washed out due to storm events, and particularly at Wilderness State Park we did have a nest that was washed out, especially with those big storms in June,” Farkas said. “It is concerning. These high lake levels just further jeopardize the piping plovers because, with the lack of available habitat, it’s concerning that they have enough breeding habitat that’s not being competed for against fellow beachgoers. It’s definitely something that we keep an eye on.”
In 2019, there were 71 pairs of piping plovers recorded. This year, there were 64.
“It’s concerning that if we’re not getting as many chicks out each year that they’re not coming back to breed,” Farkas said. “High levels of the water are jeopardizing the habitat and the ability for successful nests, so we are seeing an impact. We were on an incline for a while with having more and more breeding pairs, but we’ve kind of taken step back in the last couple years and that’s in relation to the high water levels. But that’s kind of how the Great Lakes work. We know it’s a cyclical issue, so at some point the lakes will recede and we hope that the numbers will begin to really shoot up again with more breeding habitat available.”
One silver lining to the situation is that 2020 marks a record breaking year for raising and releasing captive piping plover chicks. The captive rearing program is run in partnership with the Detroit Zoo and the University of Michigan Biological Station in Pellston.
“That’s due to the potential for washout of eggs,” Farkas said. “If the water levels are rising, there’s no way that the nest can stay or if the nest does get washed out, we take them if it doesn’t look like any of the parents are still occupying the nest. We had 39 captive piping plover chicks raised and released this year, and that is 11 more than we’ve ever had.”
Searching for solutions
From the federal level, to state, to county, to city to individual property owners, the search is on for appropriate solutions to mitigate damage from high water levels and erosion.
But, each specific incident might require different actions.
“It depends on what is occurring in individual property owner shorelines,” McKay said. “When considering what actions to take along the shore to combat high waters, it’s important to consider the health and dynamic variability of the Great Lakes and inland lakes. Excessive or poorly designed structures can not only increase damage to neighboring properties but also disturb the natural processes along the shoreline. That’s where excessive boulders or concrete walls are not ecologically preferred. They create the erosion for your own property and adjacent areas.”
McKay said she has seen homeowners try to armor or harden the shoreline by installing seawalls or rip rap, which is human-placed rock or other material.
“That significantly can impact the ability for wildlife,” she said. “Seawalls often basically put a barrier between the land and water interface, which is vital for a lot of the wildlife. And also when we have the hardening of the shoreline, basically it can cause erosion in the near shore area. It can basically kill off that near shore habitat that is vital for a lot of the smaller aquatic species that are the base for the food chain.”
What the watershed council recommends, depending on the specific incident, is another form of protection called bioengineering.
“It’s a form of erosion control that incorporates biological, ecological and engineering concepts to basically produce a living, functioning shoreline system,” McKay said. “It uses live and dead plant materials and native soils and structural materials. It’s a less expensive method, usually, than structural methods like the seawalls. But essentially it provides fish and wildlife habitat and water quality benefits that are lost with other stabilization methods.”
On Beaver Island, Boyle said he has seen some residents and businesses install steel seawalls.
“The building that is the ferry headquarters on the Beaver Island side had water just a few feet from the wall of the building, so they pursued a similar solution there,” he said. “Other homeowners have piled rocks in the water, and I think by and large that has not worked very well. Some people have done sand bags and all sorts of other contrivances. I don’t think that has worked too well.”
One thing Boyle said he has learned through attending webinars and researching the problem is that “there is not one solution.”
“There are some solutions that almost always won’t work, but there is not one solution that always will,” he said. “You have to understand the shoreline and the dynamics of what’s going on to really design something that will work. The DNR guys will tell you that really the smartest thing to do is move your house back from the edge of the water. They’ve said that will be less expensive than what inevitably happens with the seawall. Because if the water stays up, and you’re trying to protect land that, but for the seawall, is going to go in the lake, eventually you’re going to have to replace that, and there’s nothing you can do about it. It’s not a one-time cost. Whereas taking the house up and moving it a sufficient distance back could be a one-time cost.”
McKay added that moving a home away from the water’s edge could be a favorable alternative because of its economical, environmental and aesthetic benefits in the long run.
“Because water levels, at this point, are going to continue to be both extreme highs and extreme lows,” she said.
Although signs point to the high water levels receding for the season, McKay said “the only constant for the Great Lakes is that they change and they’re dynamic.”
“The Great Lakes have always historically fluctuated. We have had highs and lows as long as we have been recording them, and even prior to us recording them,” she said. “It’s always hard to predict what the future will be five, 10, 20 years out. We can only really predict water levels out six months, and even then that’s dependent on weather conditions, which we don’t always know.”
According to an Aug. 4 press release from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Detroit District, each of the Great Lakes, except Lake Superior, have likely reached their peak water levels for 2020. Lake Superior is expected to peak next month, before beginning its typical seasonal decline.
“While we expect water levels to decline across most of the Great Lakes, levels still remain extremely high,” said John Allis, chief of the Great Lakes Hydraulics and Hydrology Office, Detroit District, in the release.
However, the Corps is also forecasting that Lake Michigan-Huron will likely set another new record high monthly mean water level in August.
McKay said climate and hydrology scientists are predicting that the future holds extreme highs and extreme lows in a shorter timeframe that has been seen in the past.
“Historically, we have a time period where we can predict highs and lows for the Great Lakes,” she said. “And the scientists said that those timeframes will get shorter, and that it will be extreme highs and extreme lows.”