To anyone living along the water in Northwest Michigan, it’s no surprise to see Lake Michigan at a record height.
Michigan is in the middle of the wettest one-year, three-year and five-year periods since records were first compiled 125 years ago. According to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Great Lakes recently had their largest 24-month rise in the period on record.
The precipitation—as snow and rain—has fed the Great Lakes, inland lakes, rivers and streams, and saturated the ground. Battered by waves and storms, decks, docks and even homes are being destroyed. Yards, roads and other municipal infrastructure are being impacted, as well as septic fields and wells.
As Liesl Clark, the director of the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) says, we’ve gone from record low lake levels six years ago to record highs today in record time. Indications are the rise won’t stop any time soon.
Here are five important things to keep in mind.
1. Permits are Not Optional
EGLE works with waterfront homeowners to find timely solutions that benefit everyone and have the least impact on the shore or the state’s globally significant freshwater dune system. If faced with an eroding shoreline, the best solution is to move homes or structures. Doing so can be less expensive than shoreline hardening measures. Be aware that EGLE and local permits may be required if moving structures.
If moving a structure is not possible, then shore protection projects such as seawalls and stone riprap may be the only feasible option available to protect homes and infrastructure. However, such work can have negative shoreline impacts, even when permitted and constructed properly.
Before property owners undertake any protective steps, they first must file a joint permit application. It’s called a joint permit application because the same form is used by EGLE and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to review any Great Lakes shoreline protection work. On many inland lakes and streams, only an EGLE permit is required. A link to the joint permit application can be found at Michigan.gov/MiWaters.
Since last October, EGLE has allocated more resources to expediting permits for property owners if there is a critical threat to their homes or public health (such as a septic tank). By the time EGLE closes the books on the second quarter of this fiscal year, it expects to have approved roughly 1,000 permits for shoreline work in the past six months. In all of Fiscal Year 2019, EGLE approved 730 permits, 76 percent of them for shoreline protection measures.
2. Inland Lakes, Rivers Are High, Too
People living along inland lakes are not immune from the impacts of high water. Rivers, streams and lakes large and small are all at capacity, which means less water is being drained from surrounding land and the soil is saturated. Last spring, more than 900,000 acres of farmland couldn’t be planted because of persistent rain that flooded fields, according to the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development. They expect the same this year.
Rivers are moving an unusual amount of water and that has the Department of Transportation concerned. Larger amounts of water can lead to scouring around critical structures such as bridge piers. In assessing its full inventory of assets, MDOT estimates $100 million will be needed for long-term repairs at just 40 locations, including roads, culverts, bridges and trails.
One message EGLE emphasizes is that all property owners should begin acting on a permit application as soon as possible, before their situation becomes critical. Even with EGLE expediting permits, experienced contractors and engineers are in high demand and short supply. EGLE staff are available to guide them through the process.
3. Infrastructure Impacted, Too
Homeowners aren’t the only ones feeling the impacts of rising waters. Municipal parks, roads and other infrastructure such as utility lines are damaged by high water and erosion. The Department of Natural Resources reports damage to a number of the parks, campsites and marinas it oversees.
EGLE has asked those who hold a stormwater or wastewater discharge permit to perform vulnerability analyses of their facilities and to identify planning, preparation and response activities aimed at addressing the potential impacts. Among the areas that should be reviewed are storm water collection systems, industrial permits, wastewater treatment plants, combined sewer overflow outlets and aquatic nuisance control programs.
4. Keeping Michiganders Informed
The far-reaching impacts of high water prompted EGLE to host, along with a number of other state agencies, the Michigan High Water Summit Coordinating Summit in February. It brought together state, federal and local officials to collaborate closely on how to respond to public health and safety challenges created by high water levels. One outcome of the summit was a commitment to host a series of high water town halls around the state. The first was a webinar on March 26, and nearly 750 people tuned in. Future town hall dates will be announced later.
At EGLE, staff is constantly asking what more we can do and what resources might be available to help property owners, municipalities and others. One place you can find important information is Michigan.gov/HighWater. There, you’ll find fact sheets, links to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ lake levels forecast, permit information, a list of contractors and questions to ask, inland lake resources and more.
5. Looking Ahead to Summer
With so many structures battered by high water wave action and undermined by erosion, those who use the lakes for recreation have to be especially careful. Whether swimming, boating or walking along the beach, be cognizant of debris on land or in the water. Mature trees that have tumbled into the water, rocks carried by waves, building materials with nails or screws from destroyed docks or stairs, old foundations and even broken tree branches can be hazardous and severely impact an enjoyable pastime.
It is a property owner’s responsibility to remove debris from the water or the shore in front of their homes. Debris should be disposed of according to local waste removal rules. Manmade debris should not be disposed of through open burning.
In conclusion, regulation of shoreline protection measures through the permit process is critical to making sure proper materials and construction methods are used to limit the negative impacts on neighbors, the Great Lakes, and critical dunes. EGLE staff are approving permits as quickly as possible and homeowners should contact the department by calling 800-662-9278 or emailing [email protected], with any questions.
We can’t control lake levels, but we can work collaboratively on timely and smart solutions that work for everyone.