Surging Great Lakes water levels shrink beaches, flood docks in Michigan

Lake Michigan as seen from Sleeping Bear Dunes in Empire.  High water levels have caused flooding in the Great Lakes Basin, and come just six years after low levels on the lakes.

Lakes Erie, St. Clair and Superior broke records for average water heights during the month of May, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced Tuesday.

And as wet weather persists across the region, all five Great Lakes — as well as Lake St. Clair — may set additional records, the agency added, stirring concerns about ongoing flooding and shoreline erosion.

“Our June forecast shows additional record highs likely this summer," Keith Kompoltowicz, chief of watershed hydrology, in the Corps’ Detroit District, said in a news release.

The Great Lakes Basin last month saw 21 percent more precipitation than normal, filling the lakes to levels unseen in decades. Average water heights hovered 1 to 3 inches above previous May records set in 1986.

Opinion: Climate change drives shifts between high, low Great Lakes water levels
Related: Michigan environment roundup: Great Lakes water levels could break records

Winds often affect local water levels, pushing them dramatically higher during storms, the Corps warned. Flood risks extend to communities along rivers and other channels connecting the Great Lakes.

The full lakes are breaking records just six years after low water levels bedevilled ships that haul iron ore, grain and other commodities between ports.

"These changes are a response to unusual combinations of extreme lake evaporation, persistent increases in the magnitude and intensity of precipitation events, and intermittent outbursts of cold arctic air,” a Drew Gronewold, a hydrologist with the University of Michigan’s School for Environment and Sustainability, said in a statement Tuesday.

Though ship captains and some marina owners welcome the recovery from low levels years ago, the flooding has shrunk beaches and left docks underwater across the Great Lakes region.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Monday declared an emergency in Tuscola County, which borders the Saginaw Bay in Lake Huron, after flooding washed away roads and caused millions of dollars in damage. That came one month after Whitmer declared a flooding emergency in Wayne County, which borders the Detroit River, the nexus between Lakes Erie and St. Clair. The county saw more than 3,000 homes damaged, according to media reports.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to include the correct location of Saginaw Bay.

August 2019: Rising waters of Lake Michigan assault Grand Traverse coast. In photos.

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Douglas Haneline
Wed, 06/05/2019 - 8:48am

Good article, but Saginaw Bay and Tuscola County are on Lake Huron, not Lake Erie ;-)

Paul Glendon
Wed, 06/05/2019 - 9:06am

Good article, but Tuscola County doesn't border Saginaw Bay, which is part of Lake Huron, not Lake Erie. Geography lesson, anyone?

Richard Smith
Wed, 06/05/2019 - 9:09am

It's kind of hard to take this article seriously when the author thinks Saginaw Bay and the Tuscola County shoreline are part of Lake Erie. Just sayin'...

Joel Kurth
Wed, 06/05/2019 - 9:18am

Sorry everyone! Thanks for pointing out the sloppy error.

Joel Kurth

Wed, 06/05/2019 - 11:33am

That's the problem, someone makes a mistake and you throw out the baby with the bathwater. Just sayin..

john chastain
Wed, 06/05/2019 - 11:10am

When you live long enough what goes around comes around again. I’ve lived and worked adjacent to Lake St Clair over sixty years and have seen this before. In the early 70’s the lake came over it banks and flooded inland badly enough for the Corp of Engineers to come in and build temporary dikes while the community put up sandbags. After the flooding ended people got tired of the dikes and they were taken down. Then in the 80’s it happened again and you could row a boat down lakeside streets. Again sandbags and other temporary measures and more permanent fix’s like storm water pumps and separation of lake outlets from storm water systems. Now it’s 2019 & its happening again. The dikes are long gone, the emergency pump stations like so many things we build didn’t have long term budgeting and maintenance plans and the lake is back over its banks. The thing is people forget or weren’t aware of the risks to begin with, politicians and governments don’t plan for the future and nature is generally indifferent to humanity. So we don’t learn from our mistakes, complain about the cost of long term planning while the water goes up and the water goes down. Then we forgot again and in the age of climate change that might be even more foolish than it has been up to now. Do I have any answers? Yes & like many who have worked on infrastructure and public utilities can tell you those answers are not cheap. But neither is the cost of our intransigence in the face of an uncomfortable reality. We have some hard choices to make, because after the lakes go down again? Yep they’ll come back up.

Thu, 06/06/2019 - 6:48am

OMG!!! The sky is falling!!!
This happens every 20-30 years whether you like it or not. And it certainly isn't "man made".

Tue, 06/11/2019 - 9:08pm

I have a house on the beach above Lake Michigan. What you are describing is completely normal and has been since I grew up here since 1968. Climate change is not a reason this happens. Lord almighty, get a grip.

Tue, 06/11/2019 - 9:12pm

Geez, I've live on the beach in Sturgeon Bay since 1971. This is compleyely normal. I've got photographic evidence. I live here. Get a grip.