News Detail

Great Lakes water levels still trending high

William T. Perkins (231) 439-9353
Jul 22, 2018

The Great Lakes have been showing a trend of higher-than-average water levels for several years, and experts say it would take a fairly drastic change in weather patterns for that to change any time in the next 12 months.

Lauren Fry, a hydraulic engineer and forecaster with the Army Corps of Engineers, said the recent high trend in water levels has been ongoing since mid-2013. The Army Corps of Engineers, in conjunction with National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, keeps track of water patterns in the Great Lakes.

Fry said at the start of 2013, Lakes Michigan and Huron, which are recorded together for data purposes, were coming off of much-lower-than-average levels, but over the next two years they saw a record-breaking increase. Fry said that was because of the particularly wet weather experienced during that time frame.

Since then, water levels have remained consistently high, year in and year out. In June, the average monthly value was four inches higher than in June of last year, and a full 17 inches higher than the long-term average. That’s not quite as high as the record-breaking year for June, which was in 1986, but it’s still considerable.

The other Great Lakes have seen similar trends.

According to the June hydrology report from the Army Corps of Engineers, all of the lakes in the Great Lakes Basin remained above their long-term averages in June. Lake Superior’s monthly average was about four inches lower it was at this point last year. Lake Ontario was 23 inches below last year’s record high June level. From May to June, Lake Erie rose less than an inch while Lake Ontario fell by 2 inches.

So it might appear that some of the lakes are on their way to returning back to average levels, but according to the experts, it’s too soon to tell.

Such fluctuations tend to come in cycles, but Fry said it’s hard to say at what point in the cycle the Great Lakes currently are. There’s no specific rule of thumb that states water levels tend to rise over a given period of years, and then fall for another given period of years.

The Army Corps of Engineers puts out a report that projects estimated figures out for six and 12 months. Fry said some fluctuation throughout the year is normal, with the lakes drying up slightly in the fall and winter and increasing in water levels throughout the spring and early summer, but, with those normal fluctuations aside, the water levels should stay higher than average in the coming months.

“Our water level outlook in most cases could be expected to be above average unless we have some pretty dry weather,” she said.

So what does that mean for coastal communities?

Fry said there are some drawbacks to particularly high or particularly low water levels.

“With higher levels, the impacts are much more related to property damage and safety, whereas with lower levels, we have problems with access to water,” she said.

Although erosion happens during periods of high water and low water, Fry said it’s much more of a concern during high-water patterns, as it happens closer to homes and buildings.

Kendall Klingelsmith, director of the Petoskey Department of Parks and Recreation, said he has seen the effects of the increased water levels in the course of his work for the city during the past year and a half.

For example, this summer, the department has had to put up fences along parts of the Bear River — which serves as a recreation corridor in the city — because of the water's high reach on the river banks. And, in early May, Petoskey saw some moderate flooding after late-season snow thawed out. One major part of that flooding caused the waterfall at Bayfront Park to overflow, and pool up throughout the area, Klingelsmith said.

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