In 1998, President Bill Clinton was embroiled in the Lewinsky sex scandal, the Detroit Red Wings won their ninth Stanley Cup, and Larry Page and Sergey Brin founded Google Inc. in Menlo Park, Calif.
It was also the last year Lake Michigan water levels were at their long-term average height.
For September, Lake Michigan’s average water level was at 577.56 feet, or 18 inches below its long-term average for the month, according to U.S. Army Corps of Engineers data.
The 14-year stretch of below-average levels on Lake Michigan is “the longest in its period of record,” the Corps said in its September Great Lakes Water Level Summary. In January, Lake Michigan even dropped to the lowest average level ever recorded.
The implications of lower water levels are numerous for Michigan. The Great Lakes provide Michigan with much of its drinking water and are used for commerce ranging from shipping to fishing to recreational boating and tourism.
In its report, the Corps forecasts Lake Michigan and Lake Huron — which are hydraulically considered the same lake because of their connection at the Straits of Mackinac — “to remain 11 to 12 inches above record low water levels over the next six months.”
But despite the historically low water level, Lake Michigan was 7 inches above the level recorded in September last year, the Corps reported.
“We were really going into a crisis situation come spring,” said Dr. Alan Steinman, director of the Annis Water Resources Institute at Grand Valley State University’s Muskegon campus, about the water levels earlier in the year. “The good news is since April … we’re no longer near that crisis level, but we have to remain vigilant. We can’t get complacent because we are still well below the long-term mean.”
A mix of evaporating water and minimal ice cover due to warmer temperatures over the winter has contributed to the record low levels, according to the Corps. Heavy rainfall throughout April that resulted in significant flooding in downtown Grand Rapids as well as water flowing in from Lake Superior has helped raise the water in Lake Michigan, Steinman said.
“If we have another winter where we don’t get much ice cover, we are going to be right back where we started last year,” Steinman said. “That’s a place where nobody wants to be.”
As MiBiz previously reported, low levels in Lake Michigan make navigating West Michigan harbors difficult for some larger cargo vessels. The shallower the port, the less a ship can load over fears of running aground. For every inch the water level drops, a freighter has to decrease its cargo by 50 tons to 270 tons, industry sources said. This leads to companies paying for space on ships they are unable to use. Although seasonal dredging provides a short-term fix for the shallow harbors, the practice is expensive and funding for dredging has become a political issue in recent years.
While the low water levels have been an ongoing problem, Steinman said it would be short-sighted to consider the current cycle the new normal.
“Assuming that climate-related impacts are going to continue — and there’s no reason to believe they won’t — I think we need to change our mindset so that rather than reacting to these issues every time, we need to start thinking about how we can be adaptive to these issues,” Steinman told MiBiz. “When we start looking at our infrastructure, we need to start to thinking about how we can be more nimble. … (We need to start) thinking about how we can translate these challenges into opportunities.”
The city of Grand Rapids embraced climate adaptation as part of the five-year Sustainability Plan it passed in 2010. Each year, the city tracks, measures and reports data related to progress on the plan.
Specific to water resources, the city has reduced its consumption of water, which it draws from Lake Michigan, and has focused on removing pollution from combined sewer overflows into the Grand River, a Lake Michigan tributary. It’s also looking at water conservation measures, such as reducing losses in the city’s water system, updating plumbing and reusing greywater for irrigation, said Haris Alibasic, the city’s office of energy and sustainability director.
Grand Rapids’ current municipal water intake system off Grand Haven Township is safe even given the historical water level fluctuations, he said, noting the city continues to “build on our existing infrastructure using a management approach.”
Specific to fluctuating Great Lakes water levels, Alibasic said it’s an issue that likely won’t affect the city in the short term, but the municipality can’t afford to ignore the trends.
“We’re looking at something 40-50 years down the road, and it will not necessarily impact all of the Great Lakes ecosystem,” he said. “But that’s not to say we haven’t already started taking adaptation and mitigation measures.”
Grand Rapids is a member of the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative, which challenged members to reduce water consumption a total of 15 percent by 2014. As of last year, Grand Rapids has slashed its annual consumption by 16.6 percent or almost 2.25 billion gallons of water since 2000.
The city also invested $300 million to separate sanitary sewers and storm sewers, resulting in a 99.97 percent reduction in combined sewer overflows to date, Alibasic said.
The infrastructure piece of climate mitigation strategies “is really something that governments — national, state and local — have to focus on,” he said.
Steinman said there is currently an early-stage initiative at the state level, headed by the Office of the Great Lakes within the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, in which a number of water experts from different fields, himself included, have submitted white papers that he hopes will result in a long-term strategy to address water-related issues in the state.
“Ultimately, we want this to translate into policy because that is how it will make a long-lasting impact,” he said. “Every environmental issue we face boils down to an economic issue. We need to get the economics right when we start figuring out what the solutions are to these environmental challenges. … As this gets more definition, and hopefully it will, whether it’s on the port side or the water strategy side for the state, then you can start drilling down to specifics, but we’re just not there yet.”
In the meantime, Grand Rapids continues to execute its Sustainability Plan and focus its climate adaptation strategy on the resiliency of the city’s infrastructure, Alibasic said.
“Our system-wide approach takes into consideration all the varying elements, and climate change adds an unpredictability level,” he said. “To be resilient, we need to take into consideration the existing conditions and external factors, including the financials.”