/Record-shattering Great Lakes water levels could be even higher in 2020

Record-shattering Great Lakes water levels could be even higher in 2020

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Waves roll ashore at Lakeside Park Monday, April 15, 2019 in Port Huron. Water levels on Lake Huron are expected to be higher than average this summer.
Brian Wells, The Times Herald

It appears 2020 won’t bring relief from high Great Lakes water levels – and they could be even higher than this past record-shattering spring and summer.

Following a generally rainy September, measurements by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers show every Great Lake, and Lake St. Clair, well above long-term monthly average water levels for October – almost 3 feet higher on connected lakes Michigan and Huron (35 inches) and on Lake St. Clair (33 inches). Lake Erie is 29 inches above long-term October averages, Lake Ontario 20 inches above and Lake Superior 15 inches above.

Forecasters now predict Lakes Michigan and Huron will start 2020 at 11 inches higher than water levels in January 2019, said Keith Kompoltowicz, chief of watershed hydrology at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Detroit.

“The latest forecast extends into March, and for the most part, levels are going to be on-par with or above where they were at the same time last year,” he said.

Whether records go even higher next summer will be determined by factors such as snowpack and whether heavier-than-usual rains occur for a fourth straight spring, Kompoltowicz said.

Lake Superior, Lake St. Clair, Lake Erie and Lake Ontario set new record high water levels over the summer, with lakes Michigan and Huron an inch or less off their 100-year highs. In July, lakes Erie and Ontario broke their monthly records by more than 4 inches.

Across the region, that led to flooded campgrounds and streets along Great Lakes connected waterways, caused boating problems with submerged structures, and caused shoreline erosion that all but eradicated some Lake Michigan beaches.

Doris Fleming has lived on Harbor Island Street in Detroit’s Jefferson-Chalmers neighborhood for more than six decades. She has seen a lot of flooding off the nearby Detroit River in high-water years, and this past spring and summer was among the worst, she said.

“It’s been bad,” she said. “The city has been pretty good about bringing sandbags in. But if there’s only one opening, it messes it all up.”

Flood waters tend to move up the dead-end Harbor Island Street and into the city blocks to the north and east, she said. “They have more problems than we did right here” closer to the river, she said.

The news that water levels could be even higher next spring and summer worries Fleming.

“Even if it’s 6 inches higher, it will cause problems,” she said.

About 250 miles to the northwest, along Lake Michigan, the forecast is troublesome for Manistee city officials.

“Certainly, if it gets worse, it’s a worry,” City Manager Thad Taylor said.

The city had to raise docks in its marinas to accommodate the higher water, and suffered shoreline erosion along the river channel leading from Lake Michigan into Manistee Lake.

“We fear losing some retaining walls,” he said.

While the city’s boat launches were usable, the docks were under water, Taylor said.

The high-water problems don’t go away as fall turns into winter. Last year, the city had ice pushed by winds come ashore and damage its river walk, Taylor said.

“It’s a litany of things we’ve experienced,” he said. “We’ve had to make some repairs, and fortunately, our municipal insurer has stood tall for us.

“We’re still concerned if it goes up another 4, 5, 6 inches, we’re going to experience additional problems.”

This year’s record-breaking water levels were fueled by heavy spring rains. According to the National Weather Service, metro Detroit received 5.82 inches of rain in April, almost 3 inches more than the long-term average for the month. 

“Looking across the whole Great Lakes region, that period of January to June this year was extremely wet,” said Lauren Fry, technical lead for Great Lakes hydrology at the Army Corps’ Detroit office, who’s currently serving as a visiting scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory in Ann Arbor.

“We started to see less precipitation in July and August. But water levels really came up early because of that spring and June precipitation. The lakes take a little while to respond to changes.”

The interconnected nature of the lake system also plays a role in region-wide rising water levels, Fry said.

“If the level of Lake Erie is high, that’s going to influence the level of the Detroit River,” she said. “And that’s going to propagate into Lake St Clair, on up into the St. Clair River and eventually Lake Huron.”

The impacts of climate change on Great Lakes water levels going forward isn’t clear. Historical data shows temperatures in the Great Lakes region are rising faster than the rest of the continental U.S., and winter and spring precipitation, particularly via strong storms, is increasing. Those trends are expected to continue. But modeling also shows hotter summers and less ice cover on the Great Lakes in the winter, which will tend to increase evaporation.

Now it all comes down to winter and spring rain and snowfall.

“If we see another winter with a very healthy snowpack, coupled with the flooding rains that we saw last spring, then we would be dealing with even higher record-breaking water levels next year,” Kompoltowicz said.

Even average precipitation levels would keep lake levels well above their historic averages, Fry said.

“It would take a fairly dry season, and even year, to bring things down,” she said.

Follow Keith Matheny on Twitter: @keithmatheny.

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