Record-High Water Levels Present Tough Times for Great Lakes Beach Walkers

This story originally appeared on NatureChange.org, Joe VanderMeulen’s online publication that features conversations about conservation and climate in northern Michigan.

The beaches along Michigan’s west coast have all but disappeared under the rising water levels of Lake Michigan as well as the other Great Lakes. In fact, lake levels haven’t been this high in well over 100 years. They reached an all-time low in 2013 before a meteoric rise brought them to an all-time high in just 7 years.

If you love taking long walks along the lake shore, the high water and waves might just push you inland and on to private property. What can you do? Do you still have a right to walk the Great Lakes shorelines?

Jim Olson, J.D., LL.M

NatureChange.org talked with FLOW founder, president, and highly-respected environmental attorney, Jim Olson, about the changing coastline of Lake Michigan and the public’s right to walk the lake shore. As Olson describes, the land under the waters of Lake Michigan (and the water itself) along Michigan’s coast is held in public trust by the State. For a very long time, the public has had the right to walk along the beach below the Ordinary Natural High Water Mark — an obvious physical line of topography and vegetation created over many years by wave action. However, the rapid change in water levels and coastal erosion has overwhelmed the Ordinary Natural High Water Mark. So, where can we walk?

Mark Breederland

Olson says, “you have the right to still walk the beach, but you’re going to have to have your toe in the water or walk in the wet sand to be [legally] safe because we don’t know where that new natural ordinary high is. But we certainly know that if you’re within the wet sand, you’re certainly within the wave action and have a right under the public trust doctrine to access and walk along the beaches and shoreline of the Great Lakes.”

An educator for Michigan Sea Grant, Mark Breederland adds that the water levels in Lake Michigan are predicted to continue breaking records for many months, causing even more coastal erosion. In many places, high shore land bluffs and fallen trees can present real hazards to beach walkers. And if beach walkers need help to get out of a difficult situation, the first responders will be put at risk too.

Linda Dewey

“I think,” Breederland says, “our beach walking is going to have to be adjusted, for sure, for 2020.”

Linda Dewey, a journalist for the Glen Arbor Sun newspaper and Lake Michigan shoreline property owner, reminds everyone that walking the shoreline of Lake Michigan is a delightful, shared activity — with limits. When in front of private property, walkers are not permitted to stop, sit and settle in. That has always been true, but now there are new hazards. Where there are fallen trees, private docks or other structures blocking the shoreline, beach walkers are not allowed to walk inland on private property.

According to Dewey, if you encounter an obstruction and can’t go around it in the water, “You’re going to have to turn around.”

The following 4-minute video offers clear explanations and illustrations.

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