TRAVERSE CITY — Lakes Michigan and Huron are unlike the other Great Lakes in many ways, the latest in that they didn’t bust water level records last month.
But they almost did.
“In my tenure, we’ve never seen the water so high,” said Pete Moon, harbormaster at Elmwood Township Marina on West Grand Traverse Bay. “It’s sure up there.”
“The water level is now even with the parking lot. It’s very weird because a boat will be tied up to the wall, and it looks like one of those infinity pools,” Moon said.
June’s mean water levels for the one big, horseshoe-shaped lake came within less than a half-inch — 0.36 inch, or less than 1 centimeter — of the record set for that month in 1986, according to figures reported by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Detroit District.
Contrarily, statistics show Lakes Superior, St. Clair and Erie last month each broke high water level records set in 1986, and Lake Ontario broke a record set two years ago.
That means those lakes this year had the highest levels for June in more than 100 years, as record-keeping began in 1918.
“These are certainly the highest levels we’ve seen since 1986,” said Keith Kompoltowicz, chief of watershed hydrology for the Corps’ Detroit District.
Projections from the federal agency call for this year’s peak water levels to arrive this month in Lakes Michigan, Huron, St. Clair and Erie, but not until August for Lake Superior.
“Lakes Michigan and Huron have been fairly steady for the first eight days of July, only fluctuating by about a centimeter, or half an inch,” Kompoltowicz said.
He said whether Lakes Michigan and Huron will break the 1986 record for high water levels in July depends on weather conditions in the coming weeks.
A string of hot, dry days may halt a new record while a return of wet, active storm patterns may be enough to push the levels over the top.
“We have gotten off to a relatively warm and relatively dry July,” said Jeff Zoltowski, meteorologist at the National Weather Service station in Gaylord.
Records show temperatures have been 3 degrees above normal and precipitation has been slightly more than 50 percent of normal for the first eight days of July.
The weather forecast calls for possible thunderstorms Wednesday, followed by a return to sunny and increasingly warmer temperatures over the coming weekend into the next work week.
Zoltowski said the Great Lakes region may see a return of some wet, stormy weather after mid-month, but it’s difficult to yet to determine.
Andy Blake, Leelanau District park ranger at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, said the high water levels can impact visitors’ experiences because some destinations simply aren’t accessible by foot right now.
Blake said recently park rangers responded when a grandmother sent a pair of grandchildren down the dune at the No. 9 overlook on the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive with instructions to walk along the shore to North Bar Beach where she’d pick them up.
It’s what they’ve done during every visit for years.
Trouble is, right now there’s no passable beach between the base of the 450-foot dune at the No. 9 overlook and North Bar beach, Blake said.
“Not without swimming,” he said.
Both area residents familiar with the national park and both new and returning visitors should consider the high water levels in their plans, Blake said.
Additionally, some visitors have built bonfires in protected dunes areas since the normally available beach has sunken beneath the waves, Blake said.
“That poses a major fire risk,” he said. “It’s allowed on the beach, but not up in the dunes.”
Off the beach and in marinas, Moon said state warnings about the risk of electric shocks where water overflows docks aren’t without reason, even with floating docks. The high water table that accompanies the elevated lake levels recently flooded an underground electric box and set off an alarm.
The marina’s ground-fault warning system that went off over the weekend was an investment well spent, Moon said.
And that’s not the only place the high water table is elevating concerns. Even road construction projects are affected.
The water table below part of Eighth Street in Traverse City was two feet higher than what borings done in 2018 showed, said Brian Boals, project manager with Gourdie Fraser Associates on the Traverse City job. The company is overseeing a $4.12 million street and city utilities reconstruction.
Contractors discovered the higher water table pushed up a contamination plume from a former underground storage tank site near the Wellington Avenue intersection, Boals said. That caused a minor delay when they had to reroute the new underground utilities, including a new water main, above the plume and add special gaskets to the water main, he said.
Editor's note: This article has been updated to clarify a quote from Gourdie Fraser Associates Project Manager Brian Boals. July 10, 2019