High water wreaks havoc on Great Lakes, swamping communities

Joh Flesher

MANISTEE, MICHIGAN (AP) – Rita Alton has an unusual morning routine these days: Wake up. Get dressed. Go outside to see if her house is closer to tumbling down an 80-foot cliff into Lake Michigan.

When her father built the 1,000-square-foot, brick bungalow in the early 1950s near Manistee, Michigan, more than acre of land lay between it and the drop-off overlooking the giant freshwater sea. But erosion has accelerated dramatically as the lake approaches its highest levels in recorded history, hurling powerful waves into the mostly clay bluff.

Now, the jagged clifftop is about eight feet from Alton’s back deck.

“It’s never been like this, never,” she said on a recent morning, peering down the snow-dusted hillside as bitter gusts churned surf along the shoreline below. “The destruction is just incredible.”

On New Year’s Eve, an unoccupied cottage near Muskegon, Michigan, plunged from an embankment to the water’s edge. Another down the coast was dismantled a month earlier to prevent the same fate.

Rita Alton stands next to her house on the edge of a cliff overlooking Lake Michigan. PHOTO: AP

High water is wreaking havoc across the Great Lakes, which are bursting at the seams less than a decade after bottoming out. The sharp turnabout is fuelled by the region’s wettest period in more than a century that scientists say is likely connected to the warming climate. No relief is in sight, as forecasters expect the lakes to remain high well into 2020 and perhaps longer.

The toll is extensive: homes and businesses flooded; roads and sidewalks crumbled; beaches washed away; parks were rendered unusable. Docks that boats previously couldn’t reach because the water was too shallow are now submerged.

At one point last year, ferry service was halted in the Lake Erie island community of Put-In-Bay after the vessels’ landing spot disappeared beneath the waves. On Mackinac Island in Lake Huron, portions of the only paved road washed away.

Homeowners and agencies are extending battered seawalls, constructing berms and piling stones and sandbags. Some are elevating houses or moving them farther inland. Even shanties in a historic Michigan fishing village dating to 1903 are being raised. The state’s environment department has issued more than 400 permits for such projects.

The situation is inspiring soul-searching over how to cope with a long-term challenge unique to this region. While communities along ocean coasts brace for rising seas, experts say the Great Lakes can now expect repeated, abrupt swings between extreme highs and lows.

“It wasn’t long ago they were worried about Lake Michigan drying up. Now it’s full,” said Rich Warner, emergency services director for Muskegon County. “All these ups and downs – I don’t know if that’s something you can truly plan for.”

Levels are always changing in the Great Lakes, which together hold about 90 per cent of the surface fresh water in the United States (US). They typically decline in fall and winter, then rise in spring and summer as melting snow and rainfall replenish them.

Broader fluctuations take place over longer periods. Levels surged in the 1980s before dropping sharply in the 2000s.

But increasingly, the highs are higher and the lows lower – and the variations happen faster. Lakes Superior, Huron and Michigan had bigger jumps between 2013-14 than during any comparable period. It took just seven years to go from record slumps to all-time peaks.

Lakes Ontario and Erie last year reached their highest points since record keeping began in 1918. Superior surpassed several all-time monthly averages and did so again in January. Lakes Huron and Michigan did likewise last month, according to the US Army Corps of Engineers in Detroit.

Even Ontario, where a hydropower dam provides more stability, has experienced record highs twice in the past three years.

“That’s not supposed to happen,” said Drew Gronewold, a University of Michigan hydrologist. “That lake is carefully regulated.”