SUTTONS BAY — Three more inches of water might not sound like much.
That’s how much lakes Michigan and Huron’s monthly average level in January beat the old record set in 1987, said Deanna Apps, a physical scientist with U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
The month’s average water levels in the two lakes were 581.55 feet above the International Great Lakes Datum — roughly equivalent to sea level — according to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration data. The old record was 581.3 feet.
Consider, though, that January’s average was 18 inches higher than January 2019, Apps said. And it was more than 5.5 feet higher than when monthly average lake levels dropped to record lows in January 2013, data shows.
Water levels in lakes Michigan and Huron, considered one because of their connection at the Straits of Mackinac, are forecast to stay above record levels at least through July, Apps said — February’s levels are already roughly six inches over that month’s old record, NOAA data shows.
“Our message is really to be continuing to be prepared for shoreline erosion and flooding, those impacts will likely continue as the high water levels continue,” she said.
That’s bad news for Ranve Martinson, who’s trying to save her family cottage near Suttons Bay. The lake is already washing out the earth behind the seawall seven feet from the cottage, and the damage is creeping closer, she said.
Martinson just received a permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that she hoped to get last year to build a new seawall, she said.
She has been scared to drive by and look at the cabin in recent months.
“I’m not just hoping, I’m praying, sending good energy out in the universe, please please hold up until the winter’s over, we can at least start doing the necessary repairs and precautions that we didn’t do last summer because we didn’t have the permit,” she said.
The cabin has been in Martinson’s family for more than 80 years, she said. Her grandparents lived there in the summers and she remembers hanging out there all summer as a kid along with “quite the little posse of neighborhood rugrats.”
What Martinson called a “glorified hunting cabin” remains an anchor for the family, and now the next generation enjoys it as she did, she said.
But its survival is in doubt — Martinson said she remembers the high water levels in the 1980s and how the cabin survived then.
“But I don’t think it’s going to survive this,” she said.
Water levels in the Great Lakes have reached the point where shoreline flooding will become increasingly common as waters rise, said Drew Gronewold, associate professor of environment and sustainability at University of Michigan. He likened it to a bucket: keep filling it and the water eventually spills over.
Great Lakes waters typically rise during the spring, peak in summer then fall each fall before bottoming out in winter, NOAA measurements show — Apps said Lake Superior’s cycle typically is a few months behind.
That seasonal rise has already begun in lakes Michigan and Huron, Gronewold said. And it’s starting after levels didn’t fall as much as they typically do in the fall. He blamed that on higher-than-normal precipitation and less evaporation than usual, although which is more to blame is the subject of ongoing research.
“The big question now is, are they going to rise? And are they going to rise higher than last year? It’s very likely because if you look at the data you’re not that far away from the peak of last summer,” he said.
A decade of more precipitation than usual makes it even more likely, as any snow melt or rainfall on already saturated ground quickly turns into runoff that feeds lake levels, Gronewold said.
Predicting the Great Lakes’ rises and falls isn’t easy, Gronewold said. Modeling those changes would require factoring in all past and future snowfall, when it’ll melt and all the rain that’s going to fall across the Great Lakes. That’s really hard to do — just predicting snowfall two months out is dicey, he said.
So the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers looks at every weather scenario on record to come up with a broad range of possible outcomes over 12 months, then narrow that down to more likely scenarios, Gronewold said.
Water level watchers with the U.S. Corps of Engineers are fairly certain about their predictions for the next six months, Apps said. Even forecasts based on a dry spell show they’ll remain above record levels at least through March.
Whether lakes Huron and Michigan will go through another drastic swing as they did from 2013 to now is uncertain, Apps said. But now that it’s happened once, those facing the consequences of those highs and lows need to better prepare for future rapid fluctuations, she said.
Martinson said trying to stabilize the shoreline around her family cabin will be a race as soon as construction can start.
“We’ll see what the damage has done after this winter, and see ... what can be saved, what can be repaired or do we have to go back to the drawing board,” she said.