Water levels rising in Great Lakes, effects felt at Holland-area beaches

By Jake.Allen / @hollandsentinel.com / 616-546-4273

The monthly water level average for July 2017 in Lake Michigan was the highest recorded since October 1997.

Deb Thompson’s eight mile runs on the Laketown Beach are getting tougher.

This is because the water level of Lake Michigan is rising and is leaving less beach to run on, Thompson said.

Thompson, a resident of Holland for the past three years, is right. Lake Michigan beaches are shrinking and water levels in the Great Lakes are on the rise.

The monthly water level average for July 2017 in Lake Michigan was the highest recorded since October 1997, according to data from the Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory.

The laboratory measures Lake Michigan and Lake Huron as one unit.

Lake Michigan water levels hit a record low of 576.02 feet in January 2013, but have been above average since July 2014.

“For me I always run right along the water line anyway and today it’s fairly calm,” Thompson said. “But days where the water is really rough, it’s hard because you are running against these crashing waves and you don’t have much beach to run on.”

Thompson isn’t the only one feeling the effects of the rising waters of Lake Michigan in the Holland area.

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Holland State Park Supervisor Sean Mulligan said the crews from the state had to re-locate a deck used to help people with disabilities access the water.

The sand underneath the deck was being washed away due to high water levels. Life ring stations also had to be moved further inland due to rising water.

“The water is coming up higher and it’s actually eroded away the beach further up than usual,” Mulligan said. “We’ve got little drop offs now instead of smooth transition from the beach into the water.”

Sidewalk flooding is an issue when the water gets rough because it is coming over the walls of the channel between Lake Michigan and Macatawa Bay at the state park due to high water.

Because of the state park’s extensive beach, Mulligan said the impacts haven’t really been felt by visitors. Maintenance issues due to rising waters are the biggest problem, he said.

Bob Reichel, a parks operations manager for Ottawa County Parks, has been taking care of the county’s lakeshore parks since the last time water levels were well above average in 1997.

Some Ottawa County beaches aren’t as large as the one at Holland State Park and Reichel said most of the beaches he manages have lost somewhere between 100 feet to 150 feet of dry sand due to rising water levels.

“We’ve lost that much sand area and our beach area is very limited now, especially compared to what it has been in past years when we had lower lake levels,” Reichel said.

Another impact of the rising water levels is the washing up of eroded dune grass on beaches in Ottawa County.

Reichel said high waters have also washed up other debris, such as pieces of deck and large tree trunks, onto Ottawa County beaches.

The beaches, which have lost the most dry sand are Kirk Park in West Olive and Rosy Mound Natural Area in Grand Haven, Reichel said.

Al Meshkin, Laketown Township manager, agreed with Thompson that Laketown Beach is another area hit hard by rising water.

“My understanding is there’s not much beach left,” Meshkin said. “The water level is pretty high and the water levels fluctuate all the time. Right now we are going through a very high water level time.”

Drew Gronewold, a hydrologist with the Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory, said high water levels in the late summer months are part of a seasonal process.

Water levels in the Great Lakes normally rise in the spring as snow melts, peak in August or July and then decrease in November and October as water evaporates from the lakes at a high rate. Water levels usually hit a low for the year in the winter months.

If that process continued with average snowfall, average runoff in the spring and average evaporation in the fall then water levels would stay around the same level, Gronwold said.

Since early 2013 precipitation in the Great Lakes region has been above average and evaporation has been below average. Gronewold said this is the cause behind the increase in water levels since 2013.

“Really the story is since then, over the past couple years it has been very wet and the precipitation has been above average and water levels have been high as well,” Gronewold said.

This process has caused the increase of water levels not only in Lake Michigan and Lake Huron, but all the Great Lakes. Lake Ontario’s June 2017 monthly water level average was higher than any monthly average recorded for the lake since 1918. Lake Erie’s monthly water level average for June 2017 was the highest recorded since April 1998. Lake Superior’s July 2017 monthly water level average was the highest recorded since September 1996.

“There is part of a larger story here that all the lakes are all very high right now and not just because it’s summer time,” Gronewold said. “They are high for even this time of year relative to the long term average.”

Gronewold said the rise of water levels in the Great Lakes can be associated with a natural, cyclical process as well as human impact. One example of human impact on water levels is the dredging of channels between lakes to make sure large ships can pass through. Although the impacts of dredging are minor, Gronewold said dredging allows more water to flow through channels thus changing the water levels of the lakes.

Diversion of water in and out of the Great Lakes also has an impact on water levels. Gronewold said water is diverted out of Lake Michigan near Chicago. The outflow of water in Lake Ontario and Lake Superior are also controlled and regulated. The impacts of dredging, diversion of water and controlling the outflow of some of the Great Lakes are relatively small compared to “real drivers” of water level changes, Gronwold said.

The natural hydrologic cycle, climate change and climate variability are what really impact water levels in the Great Lakes on a large scale, Gronewold said.

As water levels in the Great Lakes are at the highest levels in about a decade, questions still remain about how much impact humans are having.

“There’s still the question of how much of the changes we are seeing are due to human induced climate change and that’s something we still are doing research on,” Gronewold said.

— Follow this reporter on Twitter @SentinelJake.

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