Great Lakes
A concrete pad at the base of Point Betsie Lighthouse has been damaged by waves. Photo By Record-Eagle / Mike Krebs

MI - Experts say humans can't control Great Lakes water levels

TRAVERSE CITY — Great Lakes water levels are shattering high records and the experts agree there is rather little that can be done to change that — the environment is almost entirely in control.

“The reality is Mother Nature is going to overtake us,” said Bernd Gigas, consulting engineer for Lake Ontario South Shore Engineering.

A series of experts in hydrology, engineering, shoreline protection, emergency management and environmental law spent hours this week talking and answering questions during online webinars about the ongoing high water levels on the Great Lakes. Both nonprofits Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council in Petoskey and Great Lakes Coalition in Saugatuck hosted the online events Thursday and Friday, respectively.

The consensus among the experts was the natural environment is far more in control than humans could ever hope to be, and the best way to cope may well be to simply back up from the water’s edge.

Countless homeowners along the shorelines of the Great Lakes have watched the water get closer and closer, and the water gobble up more land with every storm. Many are left wondering how to protect their homes from literally splashing into the rising waters.

Jennifer McKay, policy director with the Petoskey-based agency, said that ultimately, it is often more cost-effective and environmentally sound for shoreline property owners to move their homes further away from the water. It can be done for between $12 and $16 per square foot, she said.

However, many shoreline homeowners instead try to hold back the big lakes and their effects.

“We see excessive or poorly designed structures that can increase damage to neighboring properties and disrupt natural processes along the shoreline,” McKay said.

Adding boulders, seawalls or other hardening methods doesn’t help absorb wave energy, forcing that energy downward and sideways. That results in scouring the lake bottom and often undercutting the structure, or causing undue erosion on neighboring properties, McKay said.

She said those methods are no good for water quality or aquatic habitats, either.

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