Rising waters of Lake Michigan assault Grand Traverse coast. In photos.

A portion of the dock on the south side of Leland’s Fishtown, along with several iconic shanties along the river, have suffered flooding and damage from high water levels.

Life-saving buoys were placed several years ago a few feet from the water at Clinch Park in Traverse City. They are now in the water of Grand Traverse Bay.

Several parking spaces along West End Beach in Traverse City have collapsed from high water erosion on Grand Traverse Bay. No immediate action is planned to repair the area until waters recede.

Several parking spaces along West End Beach in Traverse City have collapsed from high water erosion on Grand Traverse Bay. No immediate action is planned to repair the area until waters recede.


The Boardman River has completely submerged a boardwalk in downtown Traverse City, where high waters have rendered the popular woodend walkway unusable.

A life-saving buoy sits in the water at Traverse City’s Clinch Park Beach, where it used to be several feet above the water line.

A submerged jetty at Traverse City’s Clinch Park Marina provides a watery walkway on Grand Traverse Bay.

TRAVERSE CITY — Near-record water levels in Lake Michigan have roughed up and in some cases overwhelmed shorelines along Grand Traverse and Leelanau counties.

As a professional photographer and Traverse City native, I spent hours this summer documenting nature’s churn across this scenic peninsula in northwest lower Michigan. 

In the Grand Traverse region, boardwalks and docks are under water and unusable, beachfront parking areas are eroding, and flooding along waterways occurs with variable wind directions.

The pier at the mouth of the Boardman River in Traverse City has been completely submerged. The orange buoys mark the presence of steel pilings to warn boaters to stay clear.

On the plus side, shipping on the Great Lakes is up and higher water levels are allowing more tonnage to be carried by each vessel carrying iron ore. 

According to the Lake Carriers’ Association’s Tom Rayburn, for every inch of increased draft (the measure from waterline to the bottom of a boat), a 1,000-foot vessel can carry another 270 tons of cargo. There are 13 ships of 1,000 feet on the Great Lakes. The record for loaded tonnage has been broken several times this year, with American Steamship Company’s M/V Indiana Harbor the current record holder with 77,543 tons of iron ore. 

A heavy snowfall in the Great Lakes basin, combined with a wet spring and early summer has supplied the lakes with abundant water this year.

Sault Ste. Marie is up 8.85 inches of rain from normal amounts, Marquette had 227.6 inches of snow last winter.

According to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the lakes are up an average of 18 inches from record low water levels in 2013. Lake Michigan/Lake Huron, considered one body due to their connecting in the Straits of Mackinac, is up 31 inches above average water levels for August. 

The government forecasts that Great Lakes water levels, which are cyclical in nature, will remain higher than normal for the next six months, even as they begin their seasonal decline.

Leelanau County’s Christmas Cove has lost a portion of its parking lot along Lake Michigan. Storms from the lake have caused severe erosion at the popular beach.

The Boardman River has completely submerged the river boardwalk in downtown Traverse City, where signs caution visitors to be cautious.

Jake Hutchinson looks back at his jet ski as he wades ashore at Traverse City’s Clinch Park Marina. Launch ramps across northwest lower Michigan are under water due to high water levels in Lake Michigan.

The eroded parking lot at Traverse City’s West End Beach is a result of high water and wave action on Grand Traverse Bay.

Photographer John L. Russell, a native of Traverse City, retired in 2004 after a 30-year career with the Traverse City Record-Eagle, where he was chief photographer.

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Jim Olson
Wed, 08/28/2019 - 10:49am

John and Bridge, thanking you for documenting the effects and impacts of rising water levels in Great Lakes basin and Midwest. While it must be remembered that climate change involves extreme swings (outside of historical range of highs and lows), we are for the time being, and possibly longer, in a trend toward extreme high water levels--not just in the Great Lakes and connecting waters, but tributary waters in each watershed. Newer modeling points to an ability to identify the portion of water levels attributable to climate change, thus establish the correlation in the present and an ability to better predict what's coming in the short and long-term. Your article and photographs demonstrate the need for urgent action by the International Joint Commission, the two countries Canada and US who are parties to the 1909 Boundary Water Treaty creating the Commission. The BWT charges the IJC to address impacts from water levels, including flows, and water pollution. Because of the threat of billions on billions in damages to public infrastructure, private and public property, economy, shipping, fishing, boating, recreation, the IJC, countries and states need to take immediate and affirmative steps to establish a framework for using the science and establishing a legal principle--such as the public trust doctrine that protects the integrity of the Great Lakes based on common law of each state-- that assures that protection of Great Lakes is paramount, and that we proactively address these effects of high water, or low water when that occurs, fairly and under best possible predictions, with standards that assure the integrity of these water from one generation to the next. See FLOW Report and Proposal to the IJC (July 2019) urging formation of a study group to move this forward as quickly as possible. www.flowforwater.org webpage. Or search for the Proposal on our blog, scrolling to the link. Thank you, again.

Susan Elliott
Wed, 08/28/2019 - 10:57am

Good grief. I live on Tawas Bay and our water is high too. EVERYWHERE around the Great Lakes people are struggling and wondering what is coming next. You can find similar photos all around the lakes, it’s not just Grand Traverse Bay! Please consider giving other communities press too. We all need help.

Gerry Niedermaier
Thu, 08/29/2019 - 11:07am

The Lakes have gotten so healthy with the high water. This is how it was decades ago, but not as high as when I was a kid in Gladstone back in the '50's and 60's. Communities and people placed docks, built homes on the water, etc., without researching the Lake levels. As Yogi Berra once said "It ain't over 'til it's over."