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 low levels as recently as 2013 to record highs today. 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 and creating demand by shoreline property owners for environmental permits to armor their piece of the shoreline.
The delicate balancing act between protecting private property and protecting the public trust—because Great Lakes submerged lands up to the ordinary high-water mark belong to the public—is a challenge for government and citizens alike. FLOW is profiling this concern with articles, videos and commentary. FLOW will continue to monitor high Great Lakes water levels and defend the public interest in assuring access to public trust shoreline and protection of sensitive coastal resources.
High Water Impact on Beach Walking, Inland Lakes
Nature Change—an online magazine that features conversations about conservation and climate in northern Michigan—has published a series of video stories, in collaboration with FLOW, that chronicle the impact of high water on beach walking, inland lakes, septic systems, and infrastructure.
Great Lakes Passport
In summer 2019 FLOW introduced our Great Lakes Passport to help you celebrate and exercise your rights during these record-high water levels on the Great Lakes, and to know your rights and responsibilities in Michigan when walking the beach and enjoying the water. Click below to view the entire 4-page passport, and here’s a downloadable version for saving, printing, and sharing of your Great Lakes Passport.
FLOW's High Water Blog Coverage
We can’t save every beach house, let’s not destroy the beach (guest column) — MLive op-ed, April 24, 2020
Record-high Great Lakes water levels have shoreland property owners frantically looking to install hardened ‘shoreline protection.’ That has state regulators working to expedite shoreline armoring permits in turn, and it is prompting concerns about the economic impacts to tourism-dependent coastal communities as Great Lakes beaches erode away. The problem is that hard shoreline armoring doesn’t really protect the shore — it actually destroys the natural beach over the long term. So rushing to install armoring will backfire, to the detriment of shoreline property owners, their neighbors, their coastal communities, and the state of Michigan’s residents. Let me explain.
“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 water mark is," says FLOW president Jim Olson. "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.”
Government Must Protect the Great Lakes, our Greatest Source of Natural Capital — September 4, 2019
"Our abundant water resources will increasingly weigh to Michigan’s competitive advantage, but, more likely than not, Michigan will face future challenges from states that will be stressed by inadequate water supplies and who will look to our region with the belief and expectation that our water resources need to serve a larger geography," writes Skip Pruss, who authored four "Resetting Expectations" reports for FLOW in 2019. "Our water wealth will be certain to attract a broad universe of water-dependent agricultural, commercial, and industrial private interests as well. At the same time, the chasm between the water rich and the water poor will grow. Great Lakes freshwater resources and the vital services they provide will only increase in value in a future where national and international water supplies become more stressed and attenuated."
The Climate Crisis and Sea-sawing Great Lakes Water Levels — August 1, 2019
"Historical water level records for the Great Lakes show a general span of around 30 years from a significant low-level to high-level period," writes Jim Olson. "This year’s swing to a record high-water level in June from a record low-water level in 2013 took only six years. This year’s precipitation in Traverse City is trending 10-percent above the average rainfall so far. Farm fields, homes, businesses, and coastal communities are flooded. Shorelines are gone or shrinking, while erosion, more sediments, and high-water levels have destroyed homes and public beaches or infrastructure. Recent reports on the climate change impacts in the Great Lakes Basin project a 30-percent increase in precipitation, or an increase of nine inches a year or a total of 43 to 44 inches annually in Traverse City. If the current record high 10-percent increase is already wreaking havoc, what will happen when the increase is tripled?"
"This spring, water levels on all five of the Great Lakes have reached, or are approaching, record highs," write Dave Dempsey and Jim Olson. "The result of unusually high winter and spring precipitation, increased winter ice cover and reduced evaporation, these new highs are the latest in a never-ending series of Great Lakes level fluctuations. The levels have typically fluctuated by as much as 7 feet in recent geologic times. However, studies show that climate change is causing or contributing to more rapid swings between high and low water levels. Just six years ago, Great Lakes levels were below normal, and in some portions of the Great Lakes watershed, citizens clamored for new underwater structures to hold back water in an attempt to boost upstream water artificially."
Help Us Protect the Great Lakes
Great Lakes shorelines include bluffs, floodplains, coastal wetlands, sand dunes, and development, and the type of shoreline determines how high water levels will impact property. Due to the resulting erosion and threat to property that high water levels can cause, property owners may request information on permitting and technical resources from the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE). Those resources include two webinar town halls in Spring 2020, links to resources, and Shoreline Protection Permits.