Relief? Water Levels Now Seen Dropping
By Craig Manning | Jan. 20, 2021
After a year of overwhelmed sewer systems, compromised roadways, lost beachfront property, and rampant erosion along the shoreline, Traverse City is finally getting some relief: Water levels in the Great Lakes are dropping. According to Christine Crissman, executive director of the Watershed Center Grand Traverse Bay, water levels have been on the downward slide for nearly half a year, with most predictions indicating that the current trends will continue throughout 2021.
“The beginning of 2020 saw several months of record high water levels in Lake Michigan, where levels were nearly three feet higher than the long-term average,” Crissman tells The Ticker. “Water levels began to decline mid-summer, falling approximately a foot from July to December.”
Just how much might lake and bay levels decline this year? Crissman says it’s difficult to predict due to the seasonal fluctuations that the Great Lakes see every year. Typically, the lakes gain water in the spring and summer – due to snowmelt, heavy rain, and other factors – but lose it by way of evaporation throughout the fall and winter. While these cyclic shifts are standard, Crissman says there can be quite a bit of variation “between how high and low water levels get,” depending on precipitation levels, temperatures, inputs of rivers and streams, and more. Despite these difficulties, most projections point to water levels staying at a less severe level this year.
“The six-month forecast indicates that Lake Michigan will continue its seasonal decline into the winter months,” Crissman says. “Currently, water levels in 2021 are predicated to be at our below water levels in 2020.”
That’s good news for Traverse City. In 2020, high water levels caused significant destruction throughout northern Michigan. A section of Bluff Road on Old Mission Peninsula has been closed since January 7 of last year, thanks to elevated water levels and erosion that rendered it structurally unsound. High lake levels also meant saturated groundwater, which in turn was largely to blame for several city sewage backups when the region got hit with severe rainstorms. Flooded downtown businesses, temporary roadway closures, and erosion for beachfront property owners were also among the problems.
Now, according to the United States Army Corps of Engineers, water levels in Lake Michigan are down seven inches from where they were a year ago and are expected to lose another inch by this time next month.
While lower water levels are reason to breathe a sigh of relief, though, Traverse City Mayor Jim Carruthers says that the recent trend “does not mean we are out of the woods.” He says the City of Traverse City alone has “seen damage to our Clinch Park and West End Beach areas, the Clinch Marina break wall, our boat launch sites, and our city stormwater systems.” While he’s hoping “Mother Nature is a bit nicer in 2021,” Carruthers is also looking to the future, and to steps the city and other Michigan coastal communities can take to mitigate risk in the future.
Some help could come from the Safeguarding Tomorrow through Ongoing Risk Mitigation (STORM) Act, a bill authored by United States Senator Gary Peters. The legislation, which was officially signed into federal law on January 1, enables the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) “to fund and help states establish revolving loan funds that could be used by local governments to carry out mitigation projects that reduce natural disaster risk, including shoreline erosion and rising water levels.” The Peters camp has claimed the new loans will “reach communities more quickly than FEMA’s traditional grants and provide local communities with capital necessary to invest in more resilient infrastructure.”
“News of the Storm Act is good news for coastal communities around the Great Lakes region, like Traverse City,” Carruthers says. “It’s a sign that the federal government has realized and is willing to support efforts to deal with the damaging effects many communities face due to the high lake levels.”
Carruthers also serves as a board member for the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative (GLSLCI), defined as “a binational coalition of 131 U.S. and Canadian mayors and local officials working to advance the protection and restoration of the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River.” Starting next month, Carruthers will serve on a new committee dedicated to addressing the threats and damages brought by higher water levels in and around the Great Lakes.
“In February, the GLSLCI will be kicking off a Mayors Advisory Council on Coastal Resilience, co-chaired by myself and Mayor Brian Saunderson of Collingwood, Ontario,” Carruthers says. “Our plan is to identify critical issues municipal governments face due to high water along the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River. Our work is to develop a plan and to identify funding resources available to help municipal governments facing the damaging effects of high water, erosion, and severe weather events.”Comment