Michiganders normally celebrate water. We love the stuff. We drink it and use it to make everything from soup to beer. We swim in it and sail, paddle and motor across it. We love to gaze at it when it’s roiling whitecaps just as much as when it’s glassy calm.
But there can be too much of a good thing. This year brought a lot of water into the Great Lakes — so much that wide beaches became narrow beaches, docks dove underwater, street corners and buildings flooded, shoreline highway pavement caved in, and some lakefront property owners watched the lake gobble up sections of their front yards.
Relief has arrived with autumn. Great Lakes water levels have trended downward in September and October, dropping 3 to 5 inches in just the last month. So lakefront property owners are feeling less stressed. Lower water means drier basements, fewer houses in danger of tipping onto the beach, less pavement crumbling into the bay.
But we can’t assume those dangers are past.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ most recent update suggests that the big lakes will continue to float at above-average water levels for the foreseeable future. The Corps pegged Lake Michigan’s level last Friday at 32 inches higher than the long-term November average.
Even so, that’s seven inches below the highest November average, which was recorded in 1986, according to the Corps. This autumn’s ebbing water is a welcome relief for shoreline property owners.
Lakes Michigan and Huron in 2020 consistently have hovered above their record high monthly mean. The level finally — for the first time this year — in September dipped under record averages.
The Corps says lake levels this year are falling faster than they usually do in autumn. That’s good news because it signals some relief from shoreline stress.
But it doesn’t mean we’ve sailed out of the high-water storm. Multiple factors affect the seasonal rise and fall of the big lakes: rain, snowfall, surface water runoff, groundwater changes, temperature, ice cover, evaporation.
We relearned this summer that high water can do enormous damage to private and public infrastructure.
It has become clear that shoreline hardening — trying to control sand erosion with seawalls or other hard materials — just creates more problems.
We should take to heart the lesson that shorelines change over time, sometimes quickly, no matter what we do. It would be wise for us to keep that fact at top of mind when we build anything — roads, parking lots, homes or businesses — near the beach.
Beachfront home owners, meanwhile, will anxiously watch how water levels behave this winter and spring.