Widespread impact: The rising waters of Lake Michigan

Rising Waters

PARK TOWNSHIP, Mich. (WOOD) — In the last six years, the water levels of Lake Michigan have undergone a massive increase.

While fluctuations on Lake Michigan are not uncommon historically, what we’ve seen in the last six years is unprecedented.

Not only have we set a new record highs for a monthly water levels for six straight months, this upswing in water levels has been the fastest ever on record. The lake set its all-time record low water level mark in 2013 before rocketing to the now-brimming stage.

Lake Michigan is currently 3 vertical feet higher than usual. Each inch of water on the surface works out to roughly 390 billion gallons of water.

The reason for the rise is predominantly the incredibly wet conditions that we’ve been seeing for the last five, three and one years.

This has been the wettest year on record for Grand Rapids and for Michigan. In addition to that, we’ve had surprisingly low sunshine and a higher level of ice in the last five years on the Great Lakes.

With the waters and the rise it is created all kinds of difficulties across West Michigan from submerged docks to lost homes to scrapped plans.

>>Inside woodtv.com: Rising Waters

HOMES THREATENED, DESTROYED

Erosion has been one of the most devastating impacts of the rising waters of Lake Michigan. Single storms have eaten away as much as 10 to 20 feet in a single day, threatening lakeshore cottages.

ottawa county lakeshore erosion
An Ottawa County home perched precariously on a Lake Michigan sand dune. (Sept. 3, 2019)

Ottawa County Emergency Management Director Nick Bonstell said there has been “substantial damage that is occurring to a lot of properties.” Some residents along the lakeshore claim to have lost hundreds of feet of beach.

Others say 80 to 100 feet of property has been eaten away, meaning it will not return, even if waters eventually drop.

Bluffs have been sheared off and, in some cases, have taken homes with them.

One of the most recent casualties was a home near Holland that had to be demolished in November before it could tumble into the water as the bluff it perched upon vanished.

Another family cottage west of Montague lost its battle to the slipping sand on New Year’s Eve 2019, despite the owner’s best efforts.

  • white river township house collapse
  • white river township house collapse
  • white river township house collapse
  • white river township house fallen off bluff
  • A house near Montague fell from the top of a bluff along Lake Michigan. (Jan. 2, 2020)
  • A house near Montague fell from the top of a bluff along Lake Michigan. (Jan. 2, 2020)
  • A house near Montague fell from the top of a bluff along Lake Michigan. (Jan. 2, 2020)

Other homes have had to be moved. Permit requests have been a headache to manage.

In Spring Lake, lakefront homeowner Pam Stille organized a tour of a Lake Michigan bluff-top neighborhood in December, in part so lawmakers could see firsthand the depth of the erosion crisis.

Homeowners at the tour have been mostly frustrated with the length of time it’s taking to obtain the permits required to build rock barriers. As of June 2020, millions of dollars has been spent by homeowners on barriers and rock walls. The Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy has brought on extra staff to help expedite the permit process.

Tensions are high since so much sand can be lost in a single storm.

SHRINKING BEACHES

The lake has swallowed up so much bare beach it has actually closed some local public beaches.

In South Haven, docks and roads were submerged in the spring and completely shut down. The city approved a 1.75 million dollar fix at Northside Municipal Marina to raise the docks and dangerously submerged electrical equipment.

The city also installed flood barriers on South Beach to reduce the amount of erosion and canceled its popular annual fireworks show due to high waters and limited space.

Crews install flood barriers near two water treatment facilities in South Haven on May 12, 2020. (Courtesy Tom Renner/ReportIt)

>>Inside woodtv.com: Lake Michigan Summer Beach Guide

In May, when COVID-19 restrictions were in place, officials asked residents to stay away from Grand Haven State Park due to concern for spreading the virus and a reduction in the areas people could safely enjoy the beach while social distancing.

In Grand Haven, the Chinook Pier mall was closed due to a mold issue linked to flooding, forcing store owners to relocated. The city launched a $60,000 study to whether rebuilding the shops at Chinook Pier is its best option.

BRIMMING INLAND LAKES

Inland lakes have also been at the brink, unable to drain into an already full Lake Michigan.

New no-wake restrictions have been put into place for popular lakes, the largest of which is Lake Macatawa.

Several smaller inland lakes like Pigeon Lake have considered or approved the same in an effort to reduce erosion intensified by boat wakes.

Ground water is running high, too, due to the rising waters of Lake Michigan, meaning even inland locations can flood when conditions are right. Residents as far away from the shoreline as Grand Rapids have coughed up cash to fix flooded spots.

Flooding along the Grand River near Grand Rapids in May 2020. (Michael Buck/WOOD TV8)

In May, flooding was so bad in Muskegon County a local state of emergency was declared.

  • Flooding at Mike Siroky home in North Muskegon on May 23, 2020.
  • Flooding at Mike Siroky home in North Muskegon on May 23, 2020.

LOOKING AHEAD

Sunshine in June and a stretch of hot, dry weather has helped stall the rise on Lake Michigan as we’ve moved into summer. For the first time in months, Lake Michigan is forecast to drop heading into July.

Though the lake climbed to just 1 inch from tying the all-time high water level record, current projections show it likely will not surpass that high.

Still, experts say a similar set-up happened in 1986 when all the previous high water level records were set, including the highest ever. In that year, the water began dropping in summer but a wet period in the fall catapulted levels over the brink.

The fall is historically when the worst erosion happens. Cold air over warm water makes for the largest waves on Lake Michigan.

Ultimately, if the weather stays dry, we will have a better chance to make up some ground on all the problems caused by our brimming lakes.

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