Great Lakes state hit by flooding, expect same next year

A beach on Lake Michigan. The water in the foreground was part of the exposed beach last year, lost to high water and erosion.

The water levels were off the charts in Michigan this year and 2020 could be similar, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Two hour limit on dock sign showing the record high water levels of Lake Michigan and the Great Lakes.

An extremely wet winter and spring have led to record-high water levels in the Great Lakes during 2019, causing flooding in Michigan, New York, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

“The Great Lakes are all at, or near, record high water levels,” explained Jerrod Sanders, assistant division director of the Water Resources Division, Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy. “The levels on inland lakes vary widely based on the specific circumstances, including local soils and geology, inlet and outlet configurations, and surrounding land uses.”

Already high levels

The water levels on Lake Michigan and Lake Huron in 2020 will start higher than they did in 2019. Six counties in Michigan have received assistance from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) during summer 2019 to deal with water damages. The conditions were expensive and officials expect damages will reach $500,000.

The water levels have caused numerous cases of shoreline erosion which have threatened homes and infrastructure. Weather patterns and storms have also caused coastal flooding.

The Great Lakes recently started their seasonal decline, just shy of a record set for water levels in 1986.

If you live on waterfront property it’s especially worrisome. Homes and businesses have flooded, fish are swimming on what was land, waves are crashing over seawalls and homes, eroded shorelines dot the landscape, docks and marinas are engulfed, roads have flooded, and some beaches are erased. Ravaging waves and currents conceal hidden debris and are dangerous to boaters, swimmers and recreational vehicle users.

In Oakland County, the Water Resources Commission (WRC) oversees 36 water control structures to keep the water at bay. No damage was reported in the county by late September due to remedial actions taken by Oakland County WRC.

“In Oakland County there hasn’t been any seawall or damage to structures with high water levels,” explained Jason Say, Oakland County Water Resources Commissioner’s office lake level engineer. The remedial structures move the water efficiently out of Oakland County, he added.

Throughout the years, especially in the 1960’s, there were a lot of up-and-coming communities with interest in building damns and other structures to handle the water.

Keeping an eye out

“When communities needed help maintaining a damn or structure that regulates water they would reach out to our office and we would set up special assessment districts,” Say said.

In those cases, the commission has ownership of the control structures, like culverts and damns. The water resources commission maintains them on a daily and weekly basis, monitoring lake levels to ensure they are at a court-ordered level to prevent flooding and damage.

“Because there has been more water through the system, our lake level technicians have been visiting sites more frequently, pushing water through the system,” Say said.

The commission oversees 54 lakes that have established normal lake levels through the courts. Say calls it a balancing act as technicians adjust upstream flows as needed at 36 lake level structures.

“We have three lake level technicians who are moving around the county helping transport that water and we’re able to adjust them,” Say said.

Researchers in a recent study reported that the Great Lakes region was warming faster than the rest of the country, and that’s leading scientists to predict flooding will likely only become worse.


Lakes Superior, St. Clair, Erie and Ontario all reached new record highs this year. In June, the records for Lakes Erie and Ontario were the highest for any month dating back to 1918, which is the earliest official recorded levels. The July level for Lake St. Clair was the highest in the period of record. Additional record high water levels are possible on all the Great Lakes and Lake St. Clair this fall.

The high water levels are prompting emergency response measures by local and state officials.

The USACE has several programs that may be able to assist government entities such as local communities, counties or states. Shore protection projects, including riprap, revetments, seawalls and backfill, as well as bioengineered shore protection, commonly require permits from the USACE. Coastal shoreline property owners may want to consider applying for proposed shore protection permits. Many tend to put off turning in applications until an emergency situation arises; however, regulatory staff advise property owners to plan their projects and apply for permits in advance of problems.

The range of services that the Corps can provide varies from providing technical assistance, to conducting a study and construction. Examples include determining flooding issues, flood warning and preparedness, a flood damage reduction study, or construction projects such as levees or erosion protection.

Reaching out

The USACE has authority to support communities in flood fighting by providing technical expertise, and in certain instances, provide flood fight supplies such as sandbags and plastic sheeting. This assistance must be requested by state authorities. Communities should contact their county emergency management offices, who can begin coordination with the state and the Corps. At this time, the USACE Detroit District is providing technical assistance to Bay, Macomb, Monroe, Ottawa, St. Clair and Wayne counties in Michigan.

While the water level increases vary from lake to lake, Sanders said Michigan has experienced several consecutive years of above average rainfall and below average evaporation.

“As a result, water bodies across Michigan are generally well above their typical levels,” he said.

Many inland lakes are experiencing localized flooding, and in some cases to lakefront properties, Sanders said.

“The Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) issues permits for projects that are meant to alleviate lake flooding,” Sanders said. “Typically, these projects are initiated by whatever local unit of government has the authority in that specific circumstance. EGLE has issued permits to Water Resource Commissioners, townships, cities and lake boards in the past.”

Strong storms commonly roll over the Great Lakes into the fall and early winter, and the impact on water levels could still be significant. In fact, water levels could exceed the 1986 record depending on the winter, meteorologists explain.

Four of the past six years had above average net water supply in Lake Michigan. Since 2014 there has been a string of very wet years for the Great Lakes, which has pumped up the supply of water and filled the lakes quickly.

At a glance

Every one of the Great Lakes were at their highest levels ever recorded for the month of May.

The problem was ongoing throughout the spring, but reached critical levels. The situation becomes even more dire when heavy winds push waters up onto the shoreline and onto streets, businesses and homes.

The lower Great Lakes are impacted even more because of water levels flowing down from the upper lakes.

The last time waters were near this high was 2017. Many people spent tens of thousands of dollars protecting their homes with rock barriers along the shoreline. Unfortunately, however, those rocks are now being consumed by the water and washing away.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.