You might remember earlier this year when a video of a North Carolina home being submerged in the Atlantic ocean went viral as a vivid example of climate change playing out in real time. While the Midwest safely lies far from ocean waters — some are even looking to the region as a “climate haven” — erratic water levels in the Great Lakes are raising concern for the nation’s “Third Coast.” 

In 2019, a Muskegon County cottage collapsed into Lake Michigan. In 2020, record high water levels threatened to overflow a wastewater treatment plant in South Haven, Michigan, and Lake Michigan water flooded marinas, streets and beaches, nearly submerged a drawbridge control box and eroded bluffs to the point of collapse. Hundreds of Michigan coastal communities like Muskegon and South Haven are experiencing record high water levels, as low-lying areas flood and waves erode coasts at higher elevations.

Fast forward to 2021, and the Great Lakes were lower than they were in 2020. Normally, this doesn’t mean much — the lakes naturally cycle through high and low periods — but climate change is making these swings more rapid, intense and uncertain. In 2022, lake water levels are on the rise at a much quicker pace than expected. As of June 24, three of the five Great Lakes — Lake Michigan, Lake Huron and Lake Superior — were above the expected long term monthly average.

Researchers and coastal management officials in Michigan are urging local governments to develop resilient plans to protect homes and communities. Very few administrations in Michigan have plans to adapt to rising lake levels, and residents are left with enormous price tags when they have to repair damaged infrastructure.

“What we need to look at is long-game planning, processing of new low lows and the new high highs,” Ronda Wuycheck, coastal program manager at the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE), said.

Doing so may require rethinking relationships between people and the Great Lakes.

Understanding Great Lakes Water Levels

Generally, water level fluctuation in the Great Lakes is not unusual. In the short-term, water levels shift constantly.

“There’s a lot of variability even across the lake surface,” Lauren Fry, principal researcher at the NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory, said. “On a day-to-day basis, you could see water levels that are much higher or much lower than that static water level that’s projected.”

In the long-term, the lakes have a history of routine fluctuations. Unlike oceans, the Great Lakes have seasonal and years-long high and low periods shaped by precipitation, evaporation and runoff in the region. The lakes rose in the early 1950s, fell in the mid 1960s, rose again in the mid ‘70s and late ‘80s, and fell between 1999 and 2013. They started rising in 2014, hitting record highs in 2019 and 2020.

But the 14-year-long sustained low followed by the rapid rise to record highs reflects a new reality under climate change. According to Patricia Chow-Fraser, a professor of biology at McMaster University who studies lake level impacts on wetland ecosystems, scientists hadn’t seen more than eight years of continuous lows below normal in the past decades — until now.

Typically, winter ice and snow buildup limits erosion and melts in the spring, increasing water levels. Warm winters, however, have reduced snowfall and ice cover. Between 1998 and 2013, the ice cover was almost consistently below average

Then, ice cover shot up during the polar vortexes of 2014 and 2019, covering nearly all of the entire Great Lakes. Springtime melting fueled lake level rise those years, alongside increased rainfall. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, more rain fell on the Great Lakes Basin between January 2016 to December 2020 than any five-year period ever recorded.

Erosion and flooding

Erosion and flooding resulting from high water levels have severely damaged public infrastructure, including roads, wastewater treatment plants, drainage systems, across the Great Lakes region. In July 2021, the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative found that 241 local coastal governments in the U.S. and Canada had already spent $878 million to repair coastal damage and needed nearly $2 billion more.

According to the Michigan Municipal League in March of 2020, 30 localities alone reported a cost of nearly $64 million to repair public infrastructure. During the same year, the Michigan Department of Transportation estimated that repairing and rerouting roads damaged by erosion and flooding would cost a total of $100 million, while South Haven estimated $16 million in damages to stormwater and utility infrastructure, marinas and beaches.

High water levels don’t just cause flooding and erosion from the lakes. They can also impact existing gray infrastructure like wastewater treatment plants, slowing outflow to the lakes and causing overflows, as was the case when South Haven’s plant overflowed in November 2019. Temporary flood barriers installed as a precautionary measure in 2020 cost the city $1.2 million.

“Now you’re not just talking about erosion, you might be talking about mixing in pollutants that shouldn’t be in the water body,” Jerrod Sanders, assistant director of the Water Resources Division of Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy said.

Several Michigan cities, including Detroit, are served by combined sewer systems that transport both treated sewage and stormwater runoff. A 2021 storm overpowered Detroit’s pump stations, and two billion gallons of “diluted raw sewage” spilled into the Detroit and Rouge Rivers and eventually Lake Erie. When Lake St. Clair water levels rose and flooded Detroit’s waterways in 2019, the Great Lakes Water Authority paid an extra $8 million in water treatment costs.

The Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG), a planning partnership between Detroit and surrounding governments, predicts repairing stormwater infrastructure in just seven counties will cost $1 billion a year until 2045.

According to Matthew Cowall, executive director of the Land Information Access Association, to handle increased rainfall, cities will need to upsize sewer capacity and decouple combined systems, costly upgrades that most cities once passed up.

Shoreline development

The extended low water levels from 1998 to 2013 changed recreational use and development of the Michigan shoreline, threatening private property and public infrastructure.

EGLE regulates construction lakeward of the Ordinary High Water Mark (OHWM), a boundary between private and state-owned land that was set in the 1980s. This boundary does not reflect actual water levels, but a fixed elevation above the bottom of each lake. During low water periods, a sandy dune beach may be below the OHWM. During high water periods, the OHWM may be submerged.

Above this boundary, more than 380 local governments control construction for Lake Michigan. Few localities enforce strong regulations on coastal development, Dick Norton, professor of Urban and Regional Planning at University of Michigan, said.

The current high water mark is defined by Michigan state law and is held constant until any revisions are made. The actual water line can be well below — or well above — this boundary. Graphic by Maya Shimizu Harris for Midstory. 

With few regulations, property owners developed the coastline freely when water levels were low. When lake levels peaked in recent years, some shoreline properties were dangerously close to the water.

“The lakes are down just long enough for people to forget that they’re going to come back up,”  Norton said. “They were low for a really long period of time, and they’ve been coming back up really aggressively for about the past five years. There was a whole lot of [housing] development that took place between then and where they were last time.” 

Residents of the shoreline are hard armoring: building seawalls, or vertical structures often made with sheet metal, and revetments (wells of large boulders) to try to limit erosion. The Michigan Department of Environments, Great Lakes, and Energy requires permits for construction of hard armouring, and the property owner must cover the cost. Still, with lake levels on the rise, the number of yearly permits for hard armoring increased by over 300 percent from 2019 to 2020, from 730 permits to 2,238, Sanders said.

Erin Bunting, a professor of geography, environment and spatial sciences at Michigan State University, specializes in geographic information system (GIS) mapping of the Great Lakes to better understand how they operate. 

“If one person — one household — hard-armors their shoreline, that has huge impacts on their neighbors on either side,” she said. 

While in the short term, hard armouring is the best protection for shoreline homes, these solutions impact the entire coastline — well beyond any individual homeowner’s property lines.

“If you build a seawall that’s robust enough to really stop erosion, then you’re going to lose the natural beach, because it’s the erosive process that provides the sand supply that’s needed to replenish the beach and keep it natural,” Norton said.

Erosion is essential to the Great Lakes coastline. Beaches and bluffs erode when water levels rise, and waves move these sediments and deposit them in another area, Bunting said. Dune beaches are replenished by eroded sand when water levels decrease.

Seawalls and revetments deflect waves and the sediment that waves carry. If sand is deflected away from the shore and settles too deep, waves cannot deposit it back on beaches. Too much hard armoring in one place can damage beaches in other areas, either by deflecting extra wave energy toward a different area, increasing erosion, or by stopping flows of sediments that normally deposit on nearby beaches.

“We have incredible beach resources in Michigan, and those beaches are dependent on sand supply,” Sanders said. “That’s been [the case] for 3,000 years.”

Seawalls and revetments push waves — and the sand waves carry — away from the shore. This graphic illustrates how hard armoring disrupts the shape of the beach. Graphics by Maya Shimizu Harris for Midstory. 

Preserving the natural shoreline

Losing the beach is a symbolic and legal challenge for Michigan, a state with 62 percent of the Great Lakes coastline.

“[In] Michigan, we are very proud that we have many parts of our shoreline that [have] not been structured,” Wuycheck said. Ohio and Illinois, in contrast, have large swaths of hard-armored shoreline.

Under the public trust doctrine, the public has a right to access the Michigan coastline below the ordinary high water mark. The Michigan Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Act also regulates construction that diminishes natural resources like dune beaches.

“There’s this inherent [issue of] private property versus public trust and public resources,” Sanders said.

Sanders said EGLE was aware of the impacts of hard armoring and the department limited some coastline damage through the permit process. Still, local governments may be hesitant to limit hard armoring.

“Politically, it’s an incredibly difficult thing to do because, generally, wealthy, politically active property owners are the ones who own shorefront property, and they don’t want to be told ‘No, [you] can’t build a seawall to protect [y]our house,’” Norton said.

In February, Chikaming Township, a civil township located on Lake Michigan, banned hard armoring, citing the disruption of natural erosion. Chikaming Township residents can instead use geotubes, large sandbags, to build temporary revetments during high water periods. When water levels recede, the geotubes are cut open to release sand. Geotubes absorb more wave energy than seawalls but will scour sand — similar to hard armoring — if left in place too long, Norton said.

According to Bunting, sustainable alternatives to armoring like revegetation exist; but they may not protect structures immediately threatened by erosion.

“If you try to revegetate a bluff, you can think of how the roots come in and structure, hold and bound the thing together,” Bunting said. “That’s an ideal way to have sustainable armory, but it takes a lot of time to do that. And a lot of these communities aren’t at a stage where they can do that right now.”

In urban areas, hard armoring along canals and rivers may be the only solution to flooding. As Lake St. Clair rose, the canals in Detroit’s Jefferson Chalmers neighborhood overflowed into nearby homes. The city initially had tried using sandbags on properties along canals, then installed “Tiger Dams,” large tubes of water, in 2020 for a cost of $3.5 million. 

Now the city requires Jefferson Chalmers property owners to build permanent seawalls along properties. Like on the coasts, residents are responsible for the entire cost, which can be tens of thousands of dollars.

But unlike many Michigan coastal dwellers, some Jefferson Chalmers residents may not have the capital to build seawalls. The median income in the neighborhood is less than $30,000, and residents now are required to have flooding insurance. So far, no government funding options are available.

Resilient policy

As water levels recede, coastal management officials and researchers fear lessons about shoreline development will be forgotten.

The EGLE Coastal Management Program intends to prepare local governments for uncertain water levels through the Resilient Michigan Collaborative Initiative, a partnership with Michigan universities, local government groups and the Land Information Access Association (LIAA).

Through a Coastal Management Program grant, LIAA will assess a local government’s coastal management policies and local environmental risks, and recommend revised or additional regulations. So far, 17 communities have participated in the initiative.

Because long-term water levels are unpredictable, the program helps localities develop plans for high and low water levels. Local governments can also ban building within a certain distance of the coast, known as a setback condition, to prevent construction in erosion-prone areas. The setback length should change to reflect long-term shifts in the shoreline, Norton said. Governments might also prepare a managed retreat plan to move structures threatened by erosion inland.

A basic setback condition. Using water level and erosion data, a local government can determine which areas are vulnerable to lake level rise and prevent construction there. Graphic by Maya Shimizu Harris for Midstory.

But it’s not as easy as making general rules or guidance. New policies need to reflect the unique geographic, social and political conditions for over 380 localities.

“Every site has to be able to have a resilient master plan, zoning ordinances and adaptation strategies unique for that site,” Wuycheck said. “You can’t have a cookie cutter. You can’t have just one size fits all.”

Resilient plans hinge on community support, and transitioning away from hard armoring requires accepting that we cannot control the Great Lakes — and living alongside them means there may be some unexpected challenges.

“Part of the challenge for living on the Great Lakes is resetting some expectations of living on the shoreline,” Cowall said.

In the face of changing politics and turnovers in leadership, the EGLE is looking to continue informing local governments about sustainable planning through webinars, guides and fact sheets set for release later this year.

“It comes down to capacity, knowledge and commitment,” Wuycheck said.

Advocates stress it’s not just top-down policy that will bring about change. Academic research programs also inform coastal management policy by involving citizens in data collection. 

Bunting heads the Interdisciplinary Citizen-based Coastal Remote Sensing for Adaptive Management (IC-CREAM) program, at Michigan State University. In 2020, researchers began working with six Michigan communities experiencing sand dune or bluff erosion, including South Haven and Chikaming Township. The program will end in December of this year.

Using images of coastal hazards, the program studies how local leaders perceive coastal issues. Trained volunteers photograph erosion with drones, which are then modeled and presented to local governments. Photos can also be submitted via smartphone.

“We can actually show a community how much sand they’re losing, how much sand they’re gaining as well,” Bunting said. “So we can talk to them [and ask], ‘What is the consequence of that hazard on your landscape?So they’re ready for future decision making issues.”

This research not only informs policy, but helps communities reassess their perceptions of, and behaviors toward, the Great Lakes.

“We need to not be the one to tell nature what to do,” Chow-Fraser, McMaster University professor, said.

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