Documenting the Impact of High Water on Businesses, Livelihoods

Photo of flooding in Fishtown Leland by Isaac Dedenbach

Fluctuating Great Lakes water levels are nothing new. Since records have been kept, Great Lakes levels have varied by approximately 6 feet. What is new is a rapid swing from record-low levels as recently as 2013 to record highs today. According to statistics from the US Army Corps of Engineers’ Detroit District, water levels for lakes Michigan and Huron (considered the same body of water because they are joined at the Straits of Mackinac) are approximately 2 inches above their previous record for the month of July. Water levels on July 10 were 582.15 feet above sea level — that’s 3 inches higher than their level from a year ago and 33 inches above their monthly long-term average. Those record-high water levels are projected to drop 1 inch by August 10.

There is good reason to believe that this dramatic increase is associated with climate change. The high water has gnawed away at beaches and bluffs, damaging homes and infrastructure, forcing businesses to raise their foundations or move to higher ground, and creating demand by shoreline property owners for environmental permits to armor their piece of the shoreline. Please visit our High Water webpage “Soaked: Living with Climate Change and Record High Waters in the Great Lakes Basin”.

This summer, FLOW’s Milliken Intern for Communications, Emma Moulton, is interviewing civic leaders, educators, and business owners in Leland’s historic Fishtown shanty village about how the record-high water levels are affecting their livelihood. Check out those video interview postcards below:

“It can be dangerous for tourists to walk here along the docks in the potentially electrified water of Fishtown,” says Nora Johnson, who works at the Village Cheese Shanty in Fishtown Leland, which has been flooded frequently by record-high lake levels this year. The popular Cheese Shanty got a remodel early this spring when its foundation was raised, which has spared it from the flooding that has affected other Fishtown businesses.

“We keep a close eye on the water levels because our facility is on the waterfront,” said Fred Sitkins, executive director of Suttons Bay-based Inland Seas Education Association. “Our schooner dock has seen significant erosion. High water levels have ruined this park [by our dock] and put our dock in jeopardy, and they are depositing sand and creating a new beach area that wasn’t there before. We may be confronted with the situation of having water where we don’t want it and having to dredge where we need deep water. It’s a constant issue for us.”

“In our store it’s pretty much wet all the time,” said Nels Carlson, owner of Carlson’s Fishery in Fishtown Leland. “We don’t have outlets by the floors. We all wear boots and oilers. But if the water gets up a lot higher, it might start to get into places that are not supposed to be wet. The record-breaking high water levels this year “have been worse than other years. These buildings are not all built at the same level. It started to cause some problems and we had to make changes. The water levels have limited the time that sometime Fishtown business have been able to be open.”

“The high water levels are majorly impacting our summer,” said Maggie Mielczarek, owner of Leland gal in Fishtown Leland. “We have decided to transition from our normal shanty space in Fishtown to a temporary two-month pop-up in the heart of Leland. We have been getting water in here all season. It happened a couple times last year. But this year it’s not ‘if’ but ‘when’ it will continue to flood. Because you have to step down to get into our store, once the water goes in you have to pump it out. If the water table is high the water just comes back in through the foundation. So it’s been a major impact on us. Combined with everything else going on, we’ve made the decision to be outside and up the street.”

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