Chronic High Water Is Threatening Businesses and Homes Across the Region

And scientists say it may be here to stay
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Come hell or high water: Much of Harsens Island is experiencing severe flooding due to high water levels on Lake St. Clair.

Back in March, while most of us were consumed with the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, the water levels on several Michigan lakes broke monthly records — and hadn’t yet reached their peaks. Hefty amounts of precipitation across the Midwest through late spring swelled lakes even more, and the Detroit Army Corps of Engineers now predicts all five Great Lakes and Lake St. Clair will reach or exceed record capacity this summer.

The situation is not as obviously or immediately devastating as COVID-19 or the 500-year flood that swept through Midland in mid-May following massive rainfall that collapsed two dams along the Tittabawassee River. Despite hints as far back as January that water levels were unusually high, environmentalists and property owner associations were hard-pressed to arouse the alarm of relevant government officials or the public.

Still, a crisis looms. Many shoreline communities have already seen flooding, erosion, and devastating property damage and are taking expensive countermeasures. The city of Detroit has spent $2 million installing temporary dams along the banks of the Detroit River to prevent flooding like that which battered much of the Jefferson Chalmers neighborhood last summer. Property owners along the shores of Lake St. Clair also are lining the banks with sandbags, and many are routinely pumping floodwater out of their property.

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A man ferries sandbags to his Harsens Island home using a handmade barge.

Until last year, Leonard Jaster, who has lived on Harsens Island on Lake St. Clair for 50 years, never had to pump or sandbag. Upon hearing predictions that 2020 water levels would surpass even those of 2019, he called in reinforcements. In early May, family members helped Jaster sandbag about 900 feet of his property line.

“The water is higher than ever,” he says, after watching the levels rise more than 3 inches since January. “Once it started rising, it rose half an inch every day, and it just kept coming. It was really scary.”

The financial ramifications will only worsen, says Roger Gauthier, American chair of Restore Our Water International, an umbrella organization of U.S. and Canadian shore property and small business owners. Gauthier says severe shoreline erosion is plaguing residents. “You’ve got some houses that are likely going to go over the edge, and that’s a complete loss,” he says. “There is no insurance for covering erosion events that exists today.”

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One Harsens Island resident uses planks he placed atop water-soaked ground to safely traverse his yard.

Regional businesses, including those related to recreational boating, will be hard-hit, too. Flooded marinas and floating debris are creating situations that are both difficult and dangerous for boaters, discouraging folks from using the waterways or patronizing local establishments.

Another critical long-term impact of chronic high water will be felt by fisheries, Gauthier says. Many popular spawning areas are being destroyed, causing a drop in both the populations and diversity of fish, which could take as long as five years to recover.

“That’s an $8 billion business annually in the Great Lakes,” Gauthier says. “The economic impacts of this crisis are vast and largely not quantified yet.”

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A worker seals off a freshly filled tiger dam along the Detroit River in Jefferson Chalmers.

And that assumes this year is an aberration, which few experts believe. Gauthier predicts Michigan lakes may see similar water levels for the next five years. This may seem shocking given that water levels were at record lows as recently as 2014, but it’s no surprise to experts.

“Within the last 10 years, we have seen both record highs and record lows set on Superior, Michigan, Huron, and St. Clair,” Gauthier says. “These extreme water levels in the Great Lakes are a manifestation of the consequences of a warmer planet.” The causes of these extreme water levels — both high and low — are complex, climate change-induced hydrologic phenomena related to wide shifts in temperature that include record heat waves and polar vortexes, researchers say.

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Homeowners in Jefferson Chalmers have barricaded their properties with sandbags and hope to keep floodwaters at bay.

“Rapid transitions between extreme high and low water levels in the Great Lakes represent the ‘new normal,’” wrote hydrologist Ricky Rood and climate scientist Drew Gronewold, both of the University of Michigan, in a June 2019 web essay. “Our view is based on interactions between global climate variability and the components of the regional hydrological cycle. Increasing precipitation, the threat of recurring periods of high evaporation, and a combination of both routine and unusual climate events — such as extreme cold air outbursts — are putting the region in uncharted territory.”

Restore Our Waters International has been calling for action by both the U.S. and Canadian governments to reverse the rising waters for decades with little success.

“The biggest problem is that we don’t take a long enough view,” Gauthier says. “Nobody pays attention when we’re not in a crisis. We only react to the crisis at hand.”