High water levels foreshadow huge cost of climate change in Michigan
Anyone who doubts that climate change could deliver a nasty shock to Michigan's economy need only take a stroll along the Detroit riverfront these days.
Not that we can blame coastal flooding from spring rains and record high water levels in the Great Lakes on climate change. As the Free Press has reported, even the experts disagree on that question. And everyone would agree that the worst impacts of climate change remain well into the future.
But the kind of problems we're seeing now because of high lake levels and abundant spring rainfall give a hint to what Michigan will endure from full-blown climate change one day.
Along the Detroit River, high water and heavy spring rains have caused erosion and property damage. The City of Detroit has been sandbagging parts of Detroit's canal district in the Jefferson-Chalmers neighborhood on the far lowest east side. Lake water has flooded parts of Belle Isle's shoreline road.
High water is partially covering docks at the Detroit Yacht Club on Belle Isle in this July 8, 2019 photo. (Photo: John Gallagher, Detroit Free Press)
In marinas and harbors up and down the river and Lake St. Clair, docks and piers that for many years were comfortably above water are now often a few inches below, rendering them unusable. Even an east wind can make matters worse by pushing waves onto the docks and shoreline.
Climate change good for Michigan?
Michigan is often touted as one of the winners in the climate change era because of its temperate climate and abundant fresh water. But take this year's spring flooding as a warning. Maybe even Michigan will see dire economic consequences as the full impacts of climate change kick in.
There's a lot to lose. Michigan's roughly 47,000 farms added more than $10 billion to the state's economy including dairy farms and more than 300 commodities sold commercially, from tart cherries to cucumbers. Then, too, boating of all kinds is a major activity in Michigan, with close to 1 million watercraft registered with the state plus kayaks and other smaller unregistered craft.
Here's the thing to remember: Our entire experience of Michigan's climate going back a century or more has taken place in a period of relative benign, stable conditions. What if nature stops behaving itself?
Belle Isle flooding shows in this photo taken July 11, 2019. (Photo: John Gallagher/ Detroit Free Press)
Take the level of water in the Great Lakes. Lake levels vary naturally from year to year. The range over the past 25 years along the Detroit River has been about a 3-foot difference from low water level to high. Yet even within that narrow range, the highs and lows have caused major economic disruptions.
A few years ago, when lake levels dropped, marinas and harbors up and down the coastline had to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to dredge channels so boats could get in and out of harbors. Today, with water levels high, those same harbors and marinas have docks that are under water.
What if that natural variation increases? If water levels were to rise another foot or so on a persistent basis, the problems from coastal flooding would rise dramatically.
Flooding near Ashland Street and Ashland Drive in Jefferson Chalmers neightborhood in Detroit, Wednesday, May 1, 2019. (Photo: Junfu Han, Detroit Free Press)
Or take agriculture. Farmers in Michigan have complained that heavy rains have delayed planting this year. Maybe it'll all work out by harvest time. But, again, what if what farmers saw this year is just a hint of nastier surprises to come?
Let's not forget agriculture is a major industry in Michigan. Climate change could bring new pests and new blights to the state's crops. How would that impact the state's agriculture workforce that, counting all aspects of the food economy, totals more than 800,000 people, an estimated 17% of all Michigan workers?
In worst-case scenarios, property values for waterfront homes could plummet because of high waters. Michigan's road-repair bill, already a major political issue, could rise even faster if persistent highway flooding damages roads and bridges.
Michigan's tourism and recreational economy would suffer if sandy beaches disappear under water and countless marinas and harbors become unusable. Tourism contributes roughly $25 billion to the state's economy each year, generating $2.7 billion in state and local taxes in 2017, state figures show. Losing a significant chunk of that would hurt a lot, especially in the communities that depend on it the most.
What to do about it?
At the very least, businesses and municipalities will need to start thinking about high water in new ways and spend a lot of money to adjust.
Something as mundane as buying more sand for sandbagging will become a new cost for cities.
And industries as varied as agriculture, construction, real estate, architecture and urban planning, zoning, transportation, recreation, and tourism will all need to take new approaches as the climate edges into a new normal.
So let's take this spring's flooding and rains as an early warning. True, maybe we'll get lucky. Or maybe the waters will just keep rising.