Traverse City News and Events

Baykeeper, Boaters, Property Owners Deal With High Waters

By Ross Boissoneau | May 22, 2019

Increasing water levels are cause for concern across the Great Lakes – and in and around Traverse City. “It’s higher than the average for Lake Michigan and Lake Huron,” says Heather Smith of the Grand Traverse Watershed. And it is predicted to continue to rise, she says.
 
As the Grand Traverse Baykeeper, Smith monitors area waters and conducts outreach and education programs. She says the water level in the two connected Great Lakes (which as such are considered as one by the various water monitoring bodies) is up by about nine inches. 
 
Smith has heard from people in Northport that a floating dock which usually goes downhill from land now goes uphill. Other docks which are not flotation-based are either underwater or nearly underwater. Boaters who in previous years have enjoyed boating up the Boardman River into the downtown area won't be able to this season; there's very little clearance at the bridges. 
 
“We’ve gone up over nine inches from April 1,” says Mark Breederland, an educator with Michigan Sea Grant Education, a collaborative effort of the University of Michigan and Michigan State University. “That is atypical.”
 
But not unheard of. Breederland says the all-time high water level was recorded in October 1986, when the water was 14 inches higher. He doubts that will happen this year, but says he is watching carefully this year in anticipation of what 2020 may bring.
 
For now, Breederland says the question is what will happen with the rest of spring and summer. In the short term, he too expects the water level to continue to rise, as it typically peaks in July.
 
Smith suggests the water level could rise as much as three more inches in the next month. Both say several factors can influence the amount of water, from the amount of snow during the winter to the ice coverage of the lakes. Early and extensive ice coverage prevents additional lake effect snow, which robs Lake Michigan of water, instead dispersing it inland as snow. In addition, the longer the ice remains on the lake, the longer the lake is cold, which also prevents evaporation during the summer.
 
Add in springtime rains, which vary from year to year, and how much water is coming in from Lake Superior, and it’s clear that change is the only constant.

Smith points out such fluctuations are part of a natural cycle. It was only a few years ago when the region was concerned about low water levels. 
 
And sometimes there's a sudden rise of water in local areas, such as happened in Leland’s Fishtown recently. That is likely due to phenomena such as a seiche, a temporary disturbance or oscillation in the water level caused by changes in atmospheric pressure. Or it may be due to a meteotsunami, a tsunami-like sea wave generated when rapid changes in barometric pressure cause the displacement of a body of water.
 
Water levels have risen and fallen forever, but Smith says climate change may be causing more frequent changes. “Global climate change will play a role in all climate issues. Swings between low and high may come more frequently, quicker, and more drastically,” she says.
 
Breederland says the two arms of Grand Traverse Bay are less affected by the water level changes than the open waters of Lake Michigan. Nevertheless, such variations are felt in the bays as well. 
 
Concerns about rising water levels are about more than possible aesthetics. Smith says erosion can take out beaches and affect areas for years to come. When water levels were lower, numerous plants grew where there had previously been water. Now many are underwater. Smith says it’s important to leave those plants where they are. As an example, she says willow trees which may now be dying due to the water influx are continuing to benefit the area, as their extensive root systems will help the area resist erosion.
 
For those who wish to know more, Michigan Sea Grant and Northwestern Michigan College are hosting a public meeting and workshop with the US Army Corps Engineers at 6pm tonight (Wednesday) in Room 211 at NMC’s Great Lakes Campus. It will include Breederland; Hans Van Sumeren, director of the Great Lakes Water Studies Institute at NMC; a member of the US Army Corps of Engineers, Great Lakes Hydraulics & Hydrology; and Matt Gillen, one of the forecasters from the National Weather Service in Gaylord. For more information, contact Mark Breederland at 231.922.4628 or breederl@msu.edu.

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