TRAVERSE CITY — It was a year of water as the Great Lakes burst past long-standing high water marks in both fascinating and destructive ways.
Shoreline communities up and down the Lake Michigan coastline this year wrestled — to varying degrees — with erosion control and inundated infrastructure. At the same time, mesmerized locals and visitors flocked to beaches and marinas during summer and autumn storms to watch waves crash, pushing water ashore.
Officials say Michiganders better just get used to it.
“Buckle your seat belts until we get though this,” said Mark Breederland, Traverse City-based extension educator for nonprofit Michigan Sea Grant.
“We should expect winter ice damage in places and continued erosion from waves and high levels,” he said.
Federal scientists agreed.
Deanna Apps, physical scientist with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Detroit District, said the Great Lakes are apt to be at high water levels for the foreseeable future. That Corps office tracks water levels across the Great Lakes basin.
Federal records show all the Great Lakes broke high water records in 2019, save for Lakes Michigan and Huron which is considered one water body by Corps scientists.
The one large, horseshoe-shaped Great Lake — arbitrarily divided by the Mackinac Bridge — this year flirted with breaking records set in 1986, especially in June and July. In fact, Lakes Michigan and Huron were within a centimeter of breaking the June record, statistics show.
Apps said that while Lakes Michigan and Huron did not break records for high water levels in 2019, chances are likely they will in 2020.
“It is forecast to be above records,” Apps said.
And that’s pretty much going to happen right away, she said.
Corps projections published in December show water levels in the early months of 2020 are expected to dip below record high levels on all the Great Lakes, except for Lakes Michigan and Huron.
High water records set there in 1986 and 1987 may be shattered from January through April, according to federal estimates.
Breederland said this year’s very high water in Lake Michigan, combined with unstoppable wave energy that typical fall storms bring ransacked northern Michigan’s shore this year, impacting roads, homes, both sanitary and storm sewers, marinas, boat launches and coastal park and playground infrastructure, to name a few.
It will only get worse next year, Breederland said.
Some shoreline communities even called on Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to declare the entire Great Lakes shoreline within Michigan a disaster zone in order to access specially earmarked state and federal emergency recovery dollars. Both Petoskey and Elk Rapids joined that effort this month.
High water also left a mark on local recreation and tourism.
Andy Blake, Leelanau District park ranger at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, said this year’s high water impacted visitors’ experiences because some destinations simply weren’t accessible by foot anymore. That’s not immediately expected to change.
Blake said many repeat visitors to the popular national park will hike down the 450-foot dune at the No. 9 overlook on the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive and walk south along the shore to North Bar beach, something they’ve done every visit for years.
The problem is there is no passable beach between the base of that monster dune at the overlook and North Bar, he said.
Blake warned both area residents familiar with the national park and also new and returning visitors to consider the high water levels in their future plans.
More information about Great Lakes water levels monitoring can be found at www.lre.usace.army.mil online, under the tab for water levels.