TRAVERSE CITY — Lakes Michigan and Huron set a new water level record in April, just as federal scientists expected.
The two upper Great Lakes are considered one hydrological body and measurements show it’s filled up beyond the brim. The lakes last month were 34 centimeters or 13.4 inches higher than last year at this time, plus 7 cm or 2.8 inches higher than the all-time record set in 1986.
Even higher mean water levels are predicted yet to come, as much as another half-foot according to federal projections.
“Michigan-Huron is still in its period of seasonal rise, typically in the spring and early summer during increased precipitation and increased runoff,” said Deanna Apps, physical scientist with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Detroit District, which is tasked with tracking Great Lakes water levels.
Additionally, federal statistics show Lakes St. Clair and Erie also broke April mean water level records set in 1986 and 1985, respectively.
Corps records show Lake St. Clair was 21 cm or 8.3 inches higher this year in April compared to last year, as well as 9 cm or 3.5 inches higher than the previous record set in 1986.
Lake Erie’s mean April water level this year was 22 cm or 8.7 inches higher than last year, and 7 cm or 2.8 inches higher than the prior record set in 1985.
That means busted water level records for April by several inches on all four of those Great Lakes — Michigan, Huron, St. Clair and Erie.
Mark Breederland, extension educator with nonprofit Michigan Sea Grant in Traverse City, closely watches Great Lakes water levels. He’s known for a while this would be a record-setting year, and has been saying so since last year when water levels already were noticeably elevated.
“The bathtub is full,” he said, laughing.
Breederland said not only have Lakes Michigan and Huron set record mean water levels every month this year since January, he believes new records will continue to be set through July.
In fact, Corps projections released this week show an expected additional 5 or 6 inches of water level increases on Lakes Michigan and Huron before the anticipated peak in July; on the high end, it could be as much as 10 more inches.
Water levels on those lakes are projected to drop back down to where they currently are just in time for the autumn stormy season, Breederland said — another looming concern for those watching shorelines erode.
One bright spot he pointed to is that Lake Superior’s mean water level for April this year was only 1 cm higher than last year, but a full 6 cm or 2.4 inches below the record level set in 1986. Maybe that’s a sign of decreases on the horizon, he said.
Meanwhile, Breederland said there are no easy solutions for property owners experiencing extreme shoreline erosion, a natural process that’s apt to continue for months to come.
“It’s a marathon we are all going to have to figure out how to get through,” he said, adding that hardening the shoreline often is a “losing battle.”
Nonprofit Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council on Tuesday announced an online webinar for shoreline property owners and anyone interested in Great Lakes water levels. The free webinar will be 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Thursday, May 14.
“We decided to do this, obviously, because we are having high waters that are not receding,” said Jennifer McKay, the nonprofit’s policy director.
She said the council does not advocate “arming and hardening the shoreline because of the devastating impacts it has on the ecological health of the Great Lakes.”
“We’ve seen a lot of proposals for poorly designed shoreline protection projects that are jeopardizing not only the health of the waters of the Great Lakes, but also neighboring properties,” McKay said.
There are better options for shoreline areas that she said experts will discuss during the webinar, an answer to the community after the nonprofit received abundant inquiries from concerned landowners.
Speakers during the webinar will include experts from the council, Corps, Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy, and also the Tri-County Office of Emergency Management which covers Charlevoix, Cheboygan and Emmet counties.
McKay said rising waters cause other problems such as inland flooding, resulting in failing septic systems and drain fields, contaminated drinking water wells and released chemicals or fuels from flooded basements and garages into local waters.
The council had planned a series of public workshops on these topics for this year before the COVID-19 pandemic struck.
Now the webinar likely will serve as the first of more online outreach and educational programs, McKay said, since increasing Great Lakes water levels won’t wait for an end to the worldwide health crisis.