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Water Levels In The Great Lakes Approach A Record High


Water levels in the Great Lakes are high right now - really high. Lake Michigan, Lake Huron and Lake Erie are all breaking records and creating all kinds of problems for communities on their shores. From Interlochen Public Radio, Dan Wanschura reports.

DAN WANSCHURA, BYLINE: Sunny skies and Lake Michigan stretching out as far as the eye can see - it's why thousands of tourists normally flock to the small northwest Michigan township of Arcadia during the summer months.

JANICE MCCRANER: We call this Sunset Station because it is such a picturesque evening. I mean, you can just watch the sun hit the water as you sit out here and enjoy it.

WANSCHURA: That's Janice McCraner, Arcadia Township supervisor. She says the record-high water levels destroyed the township's popular beach. Instead of gently sloping sand leading out to the water, high waves and erosion have created 20-foot sand cliffs that drop off sharply, making access to the water impossible for many.

MCCRANER: With the storms that we had this fall, it really took a toll on the park. And by this spring, concrete had broken off and we had lost the better part of the expansion that went out to the beach - which as you can see now, we have no beach.

WANSCHURA: That's a new reality for many communities along the Great Lakes as water reaches unprecedented levels. And if tourism uncertainty over the pandemic isn't enough, properties are sliding into water from Lake Superior to Lake Ontario. Docks, marinas and harbors are underwater, and roads are getting washed out. Peter Annin studies the Great Lakes and teaches at Northland College in Ashland, Wis. He says communities along the Great Lakes are defined by these large bodies of fresh water. But now something of a panic is setting in.

PETER ANNIN: What's really confounding for them now is that they love these lakes, but these lakes are pounding their property and their shorelines. And so sort of they're being challenged by the lakes that they love in new and very frustrating and very financially damaging ways.

WANSCHURA: Estimates to fix road damage alone from the high waters tops over $200 million just in Michigan. In New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo has pledged $300 million to raise roadways and protect other infrastructure along the Lake Ontario shoreline. Many communities and property owners are responding to the high waters by armoring the shoreline with sheet piling and large boulders. But Peter Annin says that's both expensive and controversial and not a guaranteed fix.

ANNIN: Rather than try and engineer these lakes into what we might want or some people might want them to be, it's a much more cost-effective long-term approach to adapt to these massive water bodies.

WANSCHURA: Things like bigger setbacks for shoreline construction and better zoning laws - that might be the only practical way to approach building around the Great Lakes as high water levels could become more normal. Every month this year, Lakes Michigan and Huron have broken records for average water levels set back in the 1980s. Last month, Lake Erie was about 30 inches above average. And according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, high levels are expected for all of the Great Lakes for at least the next six months. Drew Gronewold, a hydrologist at the University of Michigan, says it's mostly about rain.

DREW GRONEWOLD: Three of the highest years of precipitation across the lakes have been in the past 10 years when we look back to 1950.

WANSCHURA: Gronewold says oceans are warming and that in turn affects weather patterns worldwide. And that means more moisture for the Great Lakes. So for the eight states around those lakes, dealing with higher water levels will likely be a challenge for years to come.

For NPR News, I'm Dan Wanschura in Interlochen, Mich.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.