TRAVERSE CITY — Swells have eaten at beachfronts and swallowed shorelines bit by bit as lake levels compete with record highs. But that just might be changing.
Great Lakes water-height measurements compiled by the US Army Corps of Engineers show a notable, if modest, drop in water levels coming into 2021.
Since early December, levels for Lake Superior, Michigan and Huron have dropped to their point they’re 2-4 inches below January 2021 projections.The projections, too, are six inches lower than January 2020 numbers — setting up for a trend that, if continued, could spur noticeable change.
That could, proverbially, loosen the drain stopper — though shoreline dwellers and on-bluff builders shouldn’t breathe a sigh of relief just yet. According to an alert included with the Army Corps of Engineers data, record highs are likely to persist through at least the next six months.
“We’re still a little over 3 feet over our average, so the water levels are still high,” said Christine Chrissman, executive director of the Grand Traverse Bay Watershed Center. “But the fact that we’ve been getting less precipitation, and less water supply in general, is helping bring those water levels back down for sure.”
Still, Superior is likely to lose another three inches and Michigan and Huron, one, into February.
Lakes Michigan, Huron and Superior matter most when considering Traverse City impacts — Michigan and Huron, connected at the straits, share a lake level, and Lake Superior’s aquifers feed the pair.
Great Lakes depths have dominated previous record-highs through 2019 and 2020, as previously reported.
Locally, more than one stretch of shoreline road has fallen to rising tides, with several homeowners along Old Mission and Leelanau Peninsula bluffs dreading a similar fate.
In the calendar year, Lake Michigan’s high waters and wave action spurred about a dozen fix-ups along Old Mission Peninsula, and four outside it, said Grand Traverse County Road Commission Manager Brad Kluczynski.
Another peninsula stretch is closed entirely.
It’s a substantial hit.
“You’re talking hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars over the course of the year that are expended to make these repairs,” Kluczynski said. “What that basically comes down to is that we don’t do as many pothole repairs, we don’t do as much ditching, we don’t do as many tree-trimming projects.”
He’d love a drop in lake levels — it would make repairs a whole lot easier, Kluczynski said.
The season’s dry, mild weather supports such potential — no ice cover means more of the lake’s waters become condensation, and less rain and snow mean less of that loss is recouped, according to National Weather Service Meteorologist Jeff Lutz.
Traverse City remains significantly behind in winter precipitation, Lutz said — to date, 12.8 inches of precipitation have fallen over the cherry capital, compared to an average by-date 40.5.
“I would call it more of a trend if we saw a few more months of oppressive (dryness),” Lutz said. “If we can continue drying out … then we might be starting to see some sort of a downward trend in lake levels.”
Recent La Nina patterns, he added, could point to more cold, dry days in months to come. But as northern Michiganders know, winters can be unpredictable.
“We’ve been surprised by relatively mild starts before and then had the back end of the season cause us to pay for being so optimistic,” Lutz said. “That’s kind-of where we’re going, that’s what’s starting to show.”
The drier trend doesn’t prove consistent statewide — eastern portions of the state have seen healthier snowfall totals, though a portion of southeast Michigan snowmelt flows into Lake Erie, not Huron.
And while some expert agencies, like NWS, have made modest predictions, others vary significantly, Crissman and Kluczynski said.
“We just kind of, at this point, have to wait to see what ends up happening for the entire winter,” Kluczynski added. “Obviously, for us, the less precipitation is good — but it’s the entire water basin that has to be taken into account … to really determine what our water levels could be.”
The Great Lakes historically fluctuate, Crissman added. A notable example comes from the mid-1980s, when previous high records were set. A significant drop followed in the 90s, Lutz said.
Still, Crissman has noticed reason trends of higher highs and lower lows.
More drastic, volatile weather patterns are one symptom of climate change, according to the Environmental Defense Fund. Waters hitting higher highs and lower lows are a part of the package, Crissman said, especially as far as recent trends.
Even with promising potential, lake levels remain well above norms, according to the data. Historic tallies were provided by NOAA — the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Superior sits about 10 inches above average, with Huron and Michigan up a solid 32 compared to more typical years.
For now, it’s a wait-and-see.
“We know eventually it’s going to go down,” Kluczynski said. “We just don’t know when, and we don’t know how much.”
“We’re still a little over 3 feet over our average, so the water levels are still high. But the fact that we’ve been getting less precipitation, and less water supply in general, is helping bring those water levels back down for sure.” Christine Chrissman, executive director of the Grand Traverse Bay Watershed Center