Traverse City News and Events

The Ripple Effects Of High Water Around Traverse City

By Craig Manning | Jan. 17, 2020

Record water levels are affecting drivers, residents, runners, and shoppers from Old Mission Peninsula to Leland. According to Heather Smith, Baykeeper for the Watershed Center Grand Traverse Bay, water levels in all five Great Lakes were higher at the start of 2020 than a year ago – and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is predicting levels won’t drop this year, either.

That could be bad news for the Traverse City area. On January 7, the Grand Traverse County Road Commission closed a section of Bluff Road on Old Mission Peninsula, citing severe erosion due to elevated water levels. The road closure is indefinite; residents in the area have been advised to use alternative routes to access their homes.

That section of road sits significantly above the Grand Traverse Bay. Grand Traverse County Road Commission Manager Brad Kluczynski says there has previously been “about 100 yards of beach” down the hill from the street separating it from the water. Rising bay levels have not only swept over the beach, but brought the water right to the base of the hill below the road. The resulting erosion is taking down trees and threatening the stability of the road itself.

Kluczynski tells The Ticker there “isn’t a fix you can just throw together” to stabilize Bluff Road. “What we need to do is to get into the water and take a look at what's happening from the water level, to see what solutions need to be put in place to get it to be retained,” he says. “The problem is that, one, getting in there [in the winter] is not very feasible, and two, this is not just a simple repair. This isn't something where we're talking about putting a few boulders down to hold the hill and the road in place. This is something where we're probably going to have to build some sort of retaining wall, and in order to do something like that…there's a possibility that the Army Corps of Engineers is going to require some design review of permits.”

Involvement of the Corps would likely be necessary, given that the area is technically a part of the Great Lakes Shoreline. Kluczynski’s hope is that the Road Commission can get officials from the Corps to Traverse City in the early spring to assess damage and determine a plan. He’s optimistic that the Corps may streamline or waive some of the permitting requirements, given the fact that similar issues are happening all along Michigan’s lakeshore.

However, Kluczynski still thinks the process will be a lengthy one and that the costs “could be quite substantial.” A realistic timeline – given potential permitting – would have work commence in late summer, which would mean a closed Bluff Road until at least September.

That closure could also have an impact on another northern Michigan institution: the Bayshore Marathon. While the Bayshore’s 10K and half marathon courses do not run through that section of Bluff, the marathon event has used that stretch for many years. Any changes to the course would involve redirecting the 1,200-plus runners, as well as getting a new course measured and certified by United States of America Track and Field (USATF). The certification makes Bayshore a Boston Marathon qualifier, which Traverse City Track Club Executive Director Lisa Taylor says is “a big draw for marathon events like ours.”

After extensive conversation with both USATF and the Road Commission, Taylor says the current plan is to move ahead without a course reroute. “We believe we can run the course without change, essentially because we are ‘foot traffic’ and not ‘motorist’ traffic,” she explains, adding that “additional safety barriers would be put in place” to keep runners on the more stable parts of the road.

For the second year in a row, the National Cherry Festival will reroute its Festival of Races events to avoid passing through the Murchie Bridge Underpass, which passes under Grandview Parkway near the mouth of the Boardman River. It has seen water levels over the sidewalk on numerous occasions throughout the past year. Mark Jones, street supervisor for the City of Traverse City, says there is no true fix and that the city is “at the mercy of Mother Nature” for whether the walkway will be passable in 2020.

“We put up signage to warn people that the sidewalk may be under water, because all it takes is for the wind to change and the water level will go over the sidewalk,” Jones says. “And when the water is over the sidewalk the only option is to go further down the street to catch a crosswalk, like at Park Street. Right now, we have no other options but to hope the water levels go back down.”

Also hoping for mercy from Mother Nature is Fishtown in Leland. Amanda Holmes, executive director for the Fishtown Preservation Society (FPS), says that resting water levels at the historic site have dipped slightly since The Ticker reported on the area in August. However, she adds that the water is still “much higher” than it typically is in January. To protect Fishtown properties from flooding – and to address structural damage from last year’s water concerns – FPS is in the midst of several major restoration projects. A week ago, the famed Village Cheese Shanty was crane-lifted out of Fishtown and into a nearby parking lot. The Cheese Shanty’s usual location will need a full foundation replacement to stabilize the site, as well as sheet piling to elevate the building out of harm’s way. “When the shanty is returned, it will end up being about 16 inches higher than it is now,” Holmes says. A similar plan is in the works for the Morris Shanty, which is typically used for storage.

These shanty projects are the first steps in a broader rehabilitation campaign for Fishtown as a whole. As recently as the fall, Holmes says FPS planned to approach the entire project as one piece. Permitting complications with the Army Corps and the State District Preservation Office led FPS to seek individual permits for high-priority areas. By the end of this year, the goal is to launch a project that will replace and raise all of Fishtown’s docks 6-8 inches. However, Holmes says Fishtown’s status as a historic site will demand a “full archeological survey” of the entire site before those repairs can move forward.

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