Highest in More Than Century : Rising Great Lakes Levels Threaten Floods, Erosion

Times Staff Writer

Disaster preparations are under way across eight Midwestern states and one Canadian province as water levels in the Great Lakes, already the highest in more than a century, continue to rise, threatening flooding and shoreline erosion.

“It’s the worst we’ve ever seen,” said Donald J. Leonard, assistant engineering chief for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. “We’re establishing new records every month.”

The spring storms typical of the region could turn the five lakes into raging inland oceans and send powerful waves pounding against the shore. The lakes--Superior, Michigan, Huron, Erie and Ontario--hold 20% of the planet’s supply of fresh water and have 11,240 miles of shoreline varying from large sand dunes to rocky bluffs to broad yellow beaches.

Leonard said some water levels are three feet or more above normal.


“When the wind blows the lakes tilt,” said James Fish, executive director of the Great Lakes Commission. “The wind pushes the water and when there is a prolonged strong wind it becomes very, very serious. That’s the worry over the next four or five months. The lakes are at record levels and we still haven’t seen the full effect of the spring snow melt or spring rains or spring storms.”

But some effects are already visible. In Chicago, high water covers piers and breakwaters. Last December, high winds pushed Lake Erie water levels near Buffalo to 16 feet above normal, smashing buildings and docks. Houses have fallen into Lake Michigan, beaches along Lake Superior and Lake Huron have disappeared and floods have forced people to flee by boat along the shores of Lake Erie.

“We need to be prepared for a major emergency,” said Sally Spires, public affairs director for the International Joint Commission, which gathered state officials from throughout the region Wednesday to discuss disaster preparations. “We anticipate flooding, erosion and damage to structures.” The commission is a joint U.S.-Canadian Great Lakes regulatory agency.

Many May Be Affected

“The potential is to have truly horrible amounts of damage,” said Thomas D. Martin, director of Michigan’s Great Lakes Office. “Tens of thousands of residents could be affected.”

With 3,200 miles of shoreline--more than any other mainland state-- Michigan has the most to lose. So, last week, Gov. James J. Blanchard took the unusual step of declaring a disaster in advance so that state funds could be used to help residents prepare. The state will provide $10 million in low interest loans and another $2 million in community grants to aid 17 threatened counties. Included in the loan package is money to raise houses or move them back from the water’s edge. The advance declaration also will allow earlier deployment of National Guard troops if they are needed.

“We’re going to lose some houses, no question about it,” Martin said. “But it is not often you can see a natural disaster coming with this much notice and see it with such certainty.”

The Great Lakes are bordered by the Canadian province of Ontario and by Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York.


Above-Average Rainfall

The high lake levels are the result of above-average rainfall in the upper Midwest for 15 of the last 18 years, according to Great Lakes Commission reports. Before that, in the mid-1960s, years of abnormally low rainfall caused the lakes to fall to worrisome levels.

Army Corps of Engineers measurements show Lake Superior a foot above its average level while lakes Huron and Michigan--which combine to form the largest body of water in the Great Lakes chain--are almost 29 inches above normal and six inches higher than the previous record, set last year. Lake Erie, the shallowest of the Great Lakes, was at its highest level ever in February, more than three feet above normal.

Previous record high water levels were recorded between 1972 and 1976 when storm-generated wave action caused hundreds of millions of dollars in damage to the region’s shorelines and to residential property.


High water, beach erosion and the potential for more damage is having a “devastating effect” on lakefront property, once considered some of the most desirable in the region. “Some people are now afraid to live on the lakefront,” said Mike Kerhoulas, president of Lake Shore Realty in New Buffalo, Mich. “I’ve been selling for 30 years and only recently has the lake fear increased.”

Lake levels have given rise to some grim humor, according to Detroit Monthly magazine. A recent article on the problem gave this question and answer allegedly overheard in Grosse Pointe, a Detroit suburb on Lake St. Clair:

“Do you have lakefront property?”

“Not yet. . . .”