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EDITORIAL: What to do about record high Lake Michigan water levels? Start by going natural

Short-sighted humans haven’t grasped the new normal, environmentalists say. Every Great Lakes state, as well as Canada, should aim to restore natural shorelines rather than create hardened stretches of concrete and rock.

A flood warning and warning was issued for Cook County.
Waves from Lake Michigan crash against the Lakefront Trail near Oak Street Beach last year.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times file photo

Lake Michigan’s celebrated horizon — an inland sea — should encourage us to think about the shoreline’s health in terms of the faraway future.

Instead, at a time of increasing volatility in lake levels, too many people have rushed to adopt short-term solutions to protect beaches and beachfront infrastructure.

That’s unwise. Where possible, every Great Lakes state, as well as Canada, should renew a push to restore natural shorelines rather than create hardened stretches of concrete and rock.

Just six years after Lake Michigan’s water level dropped to record lows, it’s now near a record high. The lake is down three inches from last month, but is still 15 inches higher than a year ago. What’s more, it’s 30 inches higher than in an average August.

Meanwhile, water levels in June in Lakes Erie and Ontario were at their highest since record-keeping began in 1918.

The impact of high water is being felt all around Lake Michigan. Beaches have been swallowed up, bluffs are collapsing in western Michigan, docks are underwater, stronger currents have made swimming more dangerous and officials have closed water-damaged roads, parks and bridges. Submerged stone breakwaters are a new hazard for boaters, and waterfront homeowners have spent tens of thousands of dollars to keep waves at bay.

Roots of marram grass are exposed in Indiana in 2016 as waves and higher water levels eat away at the formerly smooth beach.
Thomas Frisbie for the Sun-Times

At Illinois Beach State Park — the only Illinois state park on Lake Michigan — the shoreline has receded hundreds of feet. That’s because the lake has risen and hardened coastal structures to the north that have blocked the natural drift of sand that once replenished the park’s shoreline. Higher water is even cutting into the famed dunes at Lake Michigan’s southern tip.

In Chicago, waves are pounding buildings and piers. Infrastructure is being eaten away, and some beaches are getting smaller. A shrinking Montrose Beach and nesting piping plovers forced the cancellation of a music festival this summer. And things could get worse when fall storms create larger waves.

When Lake Michigan dropped to a record low level in 2013, some scientists thought greater evaporation in the summer and shrinking ice cover in the winter due to climate change would keep lake levels unnaturally low.

But the U.S. Corps of Army Engineers now says that stronger storms and unusually wet years since then — also due to climate change — are pushing Great Lakes water levels up. The new expectation for the future is that lake levels will be more volatile, rising and falling more quickly, though the jury is still out as to whether that means the setting of new records — high or low — will be a common occurrence.

Rising Lake Michigan water levels erode infrastructure along the shoreline in Jackson Park in 2017.
Thomas Frisbie for the Sun-Times

Short-sighted humans have failed to grasp the new normal, environmentalists say. In years of low water levels, they rush to build million-dollar homes and other structures along the lake that will be sitting ducks — and ones unable to swim — when waters rise.

And when that higher water comes, homeowners, developers and shore communities start installing miles of concrete, rock walls and riprap to protect their investments, ignoring the long-term effect on the shoreline.

“Infrastructure has been built too close to the shoreline,” says Joel Brammeier, president and CEO of the Alliance for the Great Lakes. “We are not going back to a having an early 19th century shoreline in Illinois, but we need to have solutions where the hardening is less invasive. Planning should mean planning for the next 100 years.”

Metropolitan Water Reclamation District Commissioner Cameron “Cam” Davis, who was President Barack Obama’s Great Lakes coordinator, says a new “living shoreline” engineering philosophy is emerging. That philosophy calls for protecting high-value assets but turning whenever possible to such natural solutions as native plantings along shorelines and installing barrier reefs to dampen wave action.

“About 30% of biological productivity comes from the near-shore coast,” Davis said. “When we harden shorelines, we are removing spawning beds for fish, an important food source for people. . . . The shoreline is not supposed to be static.”

Other environmentally friendly solutions include zoning setbacks and restoring coastal habitats such as wetlands that are resilient in the face of the lake’s changing water levels. Eight states, the Army Corps and other agencies have begun a Great Lakes Coastal Resiliency Study to examine ways to protect the shoreline, including eco-friendly measures.

That’s a step in the right direction.

Most importantly, when water levels in Lake Michigan and the other Great Lakes drop once again — and they will — we shouldn’t be in such a foolish rush to build closer to the shore.

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