Corps: Upper Great Lakes levels up

Record-Eagle/Mike Krebs The Frankfort Light on Friday, April 26, 2019, in the harbor in Frankfort.

TRAVERSE CITY — Early projections call for Great Lakes waters to rise above average levels and gobble up even more shoreline beach than recent years, particularly in Lakes Superior, Michigan and Huron.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' predictions made this month show anticipated water levels in Lakes Michigan and Huron to be between six and 12 inches higher than last summer, while water level records set in 1950 and 1986 for Lake Superior may be broken this season in May, June and July.

An even more accurate water level prediction is expected to be released by the federal agency in early May.

"All of the Great Lakes are currently higher than average," said Keith Kompoltowicz, watershed hydrology chief for the Corps's Detroit District. "That's the result of higher than average precipitation in the last several years."

This preliminary estimate comes after the entire Great Lakes basin received below average precipitation in March, following a February with well above normal precipitation — primarily as system snowfall that continually blanketed the region.

The National Weather Service reports shoreline communities across northern Michigan received above normal snowfall during the recent winter, including Traverse City, Petoskey, Alpena and Sault Ste. Marie.

"January and February were pretty intense there for snowfall," said Brian Adam, meteorologist at the service's weather research station near Gaylord.

Adam said the long-range outlook shows anticipated average precipitation across the Great Lakes for the coming months of May, June, July and August, according to information released by the Climate Prediction Center of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Kompoltowicz said he's curious to see how April's data will impact the lake levels projection expected to be calculated next month. He predicts lake level expectations will stay elevated, he said, since there have been heavy rainfall events in recent days across the Great Lakes basin, plus up to two feet of snow pack remains in isolated parts of the Upper Peninsula, yet to melt into Lake Superior.

It is expected to result in physical changes at Great Lakes beaches.

"Those with lakefront property are likely dealing with shrinking beaches," Kompoltowicz said. "The threat of erosion has now moved higher up on the shoreline, especially when we get big storms and strong wave actions."

Mark Breederland, Traverse City-based extension educator with Michigan Sea Grant, said coastal dynamics will be kicked into full gear: pulling sand away from the shoreline to develop offshore sand bars and covering up the root systems of shoreline plants. Some shoreline trees may topple into the rising waters, he said.

"It's nature's way of pruning, I guess," Breederland said.

Heather Smith, baykeeper for nonprofit Watershed Center Grand Traverse Bay, said those elevated water levels in coastal areas can be good for the ecology and a danger to some private properties.

"During periods of high water levels, plants along the shore become submerged and can provide great habitat for fish and wildlife," Smith said. "High water levels can cause shoreline erosion where there is no vegetation and can damage structures that were built or are located too close to the water's edge."

Merrith Baughman, park ranger at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, said every beach in the national park is different and how the expected high lake levels will impact them depends on the types of storms that will roll onshore.

"It's so dynamic. It's an ever-changing environment," Baughman said.

She said one known effect on the park's programs is the weekly Lyle Gun demonstration at the Maritime Museum, the former Sleeping Bear Point Life-Saving Station, which may not happen this summer because there won't be enough space for the frequently more than 200 people who show up to watch. Perhaps another location can be arranged for the popular demonstration, Baughman said.

"There's just not going to be enough beach there," she said.

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