Planning needed to face extreme high and low water levels

Tribune Staff • Jul 4, 2019 at 4:00 PM

You’ve probably heard this explanation for the recent water levels: “It’s a natural cycle.”

The water was high decades ago. Not long ago, in 2013, the Great Lakes hit record lows.

It’s true that Michigan's climate goes through natural cycles, but this pattern is projected to become more extreme, with more record-breaking highs and lows on the horizon.

In a recent article in Bridge Magazine, University of Michigan researchers Drew Gronewold and Richard B. Rood argued that extreme shifts between high and low water levels in the Great Lakes are the “new normal.”

They said global climate variability and the regional hydrological cycle point to increased precipitation and greater frequency of “extreme climate events” down the road. Just this winter, for instance, Michigan was under a state of emergency as the landscape morphed into Arctic tundra.

Climate models project spring will continue to come earlier, the researchers said. Rising lake temperatures contribute to increased evaporation, which produce low lake levels when weather patterns are dry.

The National Climate Assessment predicts prolonged droughts for the Midwest, punctuated by intense rain and storms. Alan Steinman, with Grand Valley State University’s Annis Water Resources Institute, said much of the state’s failing infrastructure could be further crippled, while high water could spread hazardous contaminants.

To spot the severe impacts, look no further than Grand Haven’s harbor.

City crews have since early spring tried everything in the book to fix potholes beneath flooded roadways, especially on Harbor Island. Lake Michigan has engulfed the Grand Haven pier and many others along the lakeshore. Officials warn of the risks of electric shock drowning due to submerged power supplies, which had to be lifted beyond the water level at the Municipal Marina. Inland, farmers across the state have been unable to plant crops in over-saturated fields.

At the local level, solutions will emerge through proper planning.

The City of Grand Haven recently inventoried its entire infrastructure, and developed a replacement plan for the next 100 years. Ottawa County continues to preserve the landscape by acquiring parkland, which includes ecosystems like wetlands that help mitigate issues like flooding, erosion and contamination. The county is also pushing for water conservation efforts to keep our groundwater resource replenished.

Local officials have shown they can plan for the future. Forward thinking is the “new normal” we need to mitigate environmental threats as they rise and fall.


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