The lakes are hitting record levels and lakefront communities are asking, what’s next?
The Great Lakes keep rising.
Last year the five lakes that together hold 20 percent of the fresh surface water on the planet broke 10 high-water records, and more are expected to fall this year. The inundation follows a 15-year span from 1999 to 2014 when the so-called upper lakes of Superior, Michigan and Huron experienced the longest period of low water in recorded history.
The lakes have always been tempestuous neighbors, but today they appear to be entering a new era of volatility that is testing the region as never before. The simple explanation is that the last five years have been the wettest in history in the Great Lakes watershed, which encompasses parts of eight states and two Canadian provinces. But some scientists believe a more complicated dynamic is at work: a warming climate that will continue to cause extreme fluctuations in weather and water levels, threatening havoc for lakeside homeowners, towns and cities, tourism and shipping.
To guard against rising waters, the city of Chicago has installed flood barriers along the lakefront in various locations. The State of New York has pledged $300 million to raise roadways, upgrade sewers and armor shorelines to help blunt wave action and reduce flooding on the south shore of Lake Ontario. And in Wisconsin this week Gov. Tony Evers asked President Trump to declare three counties to be federally designated disaster areas because of extensive flooding and damage along Lake Michigan. Chicago made a similar request last week.
All of this has many lakefront property owners reconsidering their relationship with the lakes they love. Should people living in areas prone to flooding and shoreline erosion pack up and leave? Or should they stay, and at what cost to themselves and taxpayers? How much are communities willing to spend to protect against storms and rising waters?
Those same questions are also being asked in coastal communities along the Atlantic and Gulf seaboards threatened by rising seas and the potential for more powerful storms as the planet warms. For residents along the Great Lakes, the questions are complicated by the fact that water levels vary naturally over time and will recede eventually, though they could rise more before falling and then rising again.
“What it means for the Great Lakes is that we need to be prepared for extremes,” warns Wendy Leger, co-chair of the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Adaptive Management Committee at the binational International Joint Commission, created more than a century ago to help resolve water disputes between the United States and Canada. “Whether it’s extreme weather patterns, whether it’s extreme water levels, whether it’s extreme droughts and storms, we just need to be prepared for extremes.”
All five Great Lakes are running higher today than they were at this time a year ago, says Deanna Apps, a physical scientist with the Army Corps of Engineers. Last week the Corps reported that Huron, Michigan, and Superior all broke monthly high-water level records in January. What’s more, Michigan and Huron are projected to break monthly high-water records in February, March, April, May, June and July.
A shoreline property-owner organization in Michigan has called on officials to decrease inflows to the Great Lakes from Canada, and increase outflows in Illinois at the Chicago River. But this is not as easy as it sounds, and could have pronounced downstream consequences. More important, this approach would only budge water levels by inches, while real relief would arguably require feet.
Quebec and New York are taking starkly different approaches to the flooding problems. Quebec officials have encouraged flooded property owners to take buyouts, to break the cycle of flood-bailout-rebuild, repeat. New Jersey responded similarly after Hurricane Sandy. But New York has encouraged Lake Ontario property owners to armor their shorelines and hunker down. “What the governor didn’t talk about, but should have,” wrote David Andreatta, a former reporter and columnist at The Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, “is a wholesale government buyout of flood-prone properties.”
The relentless high water is bound to bring more strife this year even as officials along the Great Lakes continue to promote climate adaptation strategies and resiliency. Armoring the shoreline is one form of adaptation. Property buyouts are another. History will show which strategy is most effective over time. What’s clear is that some people have built too close to the water’s edge. Their property was fine during low water, and they managed to hang on during the record high water of the 1980s, but today’s weather patterns have brought panic.
The devastation has been remarkably widespread, with properties sliding into the lakes from one end of the expansive watershed to the other. In this new era of extremes, property owners, taxpayers — and the officials they elect — will need to take a serious look at their lakefronts and decide whether armoring up is a wise investment, or a Sisyphean venture.
“Armoring our way out of this is not a good long-term solution,” warns Todd Ambs, the assistant deputy secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. “The history of these Great Lakes has shown that, in the end, we can’t out-engineer Mother Nature.”
The numerous “for sale” signs posted along the south shore of Lake Ontario this year suggest that many have decided to stop fighting. Others will continue to lie awake at night, listening as the waves pound away at their property, wondering how long the high water will last — and whether they have the stomach to keep fighting a great lake.
Peter Annin directs the Mary Griggs Burke Center for Freshwater Innovation at Northland College in Ashland, Wis., and is the author of “The Great Lakes Water Wars.”