Special Report: Changing Water Levels on the Great Lakes

Northern Michigan is surrounded by water.

Their levels change all the time, and have been down significantly for the past 16 years.

But the last few years, they’ve changed a lot, faster than anyone would’ve expected.

In this Special Report, we take a closer look at why the waters are rising, and what it means for the future.

This was the story back in the fall of 2012: receding waters, stranded freighters and boaters wondering where the water went.

Record low water levels were recorded for the Lake Michigan – Huron Watershed, causing major problems for marinas, boaters and the shipping industry. Captain Tom Kelly from Inland Seas Education Association was concerned, just like many others back in 2012.

“If the lake levels don’t come up very much next year, and then we have another foot drop next winter, then we could see some really serious problems.”

We looked at some photos from Dave Chapman’s place on Old Mission Peninsula during the dramatic dry stretch. The docks seem simply out of place, and they even had to use man-power to move a jet-ski off it’s lift.

“It dropped to the lowest, or almost the lowest it had been since we been here, and then it started coming back up last year, and it’s come up real fast this last year, and it’s still got to come up another two feet to be at the highest it’s been,” said Dave. 

Here’s what it looks like today at his spot on Lake Michigan. A remarkable improvement in a very short amount of time, all due to a two year stretch of incredible cold and abundant snow and rain — it made all the difference.

“The water levels are great news for us. They’ve come up rapidly. I think it’s been unexpected. I don’t think anyone would have predicted this rise that we’ve seen,” said Fred Sitkins, Inland Seas Education Center. “Right now, we’re kind of celebrating that because they’re up where they should be. We like to say, they’re basically in the sweet spot.”

Lakes Michigan and Huron are measured as one level since they are tied together by the Straits.

Levels here are above the long term average, but have a long way to go before reaching new records.

The incredible thing is, it’s gone up more than two feet in the last two years. And it’s still rising.

“We were at record lows for a long time, and really the wetlands all around the Great Lakes basin were struggling significantly,” said Fred. “So this rapid rise has been a great help to a lot of species.”

Looking north, Lake Superior was just as bad, with more than a decade of low water. This was Whitefish Point years ago, but now the high water is a bit too high.

“We’ve always had a good amount of beach, sand to walk out to these jetties and now to see how far these are out, it’s pretty amazing,” said Bruce Lynn, Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum

While not at record highs, it’s obvious the levels are causing problems.

“It was November 10, 2013, we had just had a memorial for the Edmund Fitzgerald, and a massive storm came in out of the northwest and before we knew it our deck was undermined,” said Bruce.

The higher water levels are not a bad thing for everyone, it’s something the shipping industry is welcoming with open arms.

“Well, the added water lets the ships load deeper, and so they can carry more cargo,” said Bob Mason, Great Lakes Maritime Academy. “They don’t need to make as many trips in a season…not really a negative issue, mostly positive.”

Now, the focus is on the future. Lake Superior is forecast to go up another three to six inches this summer. It should remain below last year’s high levels.

Lakes Michigan and Huron are forecast to go up another four to eight inches, which is still far below the record highs set back in the 1980’s but are the highest since 1998.

And so while no one can be exactly sure of what will happen, nature seems to be correcting itself.

Dave said, “I don’t get all upset about it. You can’t do anything about it. It’s just natural.”