Published in Economic Development
Waterlogged Wonderland: High water, rainy weather put damper on West Michigan tourism, recreation industries PHOTO: MARLA MILLER

Waterlogged Wonderland: High water, rainy weather put damper on West Michigan tourism, recreation industries

BY Sunday, July 07, 2019 07:00pm

Hall’s Sport Center in Grand Haven should be a hub of activity in early summer, one of the company’s busiest times of the year for boat sales. 

Instead, the dealership’s warehouse has sat empty of inventory for much of the season so far. 

The reason: Flood waters last month forced the closure of a segment of Harbor Island Drive that runs in front of Hall’s Sports Center near the Grand River. The company’s showroom opened for a while this spring, but later had to close because of the high water.

“It hasn’t quite got to the building yet, but the warehouse is underwater. We had to pull all of our boats out of there,” Shaun Grow, manager of Hall’s Sport Center in Grand Haven, told MiBiz in late June. 

Hall’s Sport Center relocated its inventory in Grand Haven to its other locations in Grand Rapids and Muskegon, where Grow is currently working. The company even advertised flood sales to help boost business and make up for the disruption, he said. 

Those disruptions seem likely to continue for businesses up and down the Lake Michigan shoreline that depend on the water and the weather for their livelihoods. High water levels and rainy days have put a damper on the start of West Michigan’s busy summer season, affecting the many businesses that rely on tourism and outdoor activities.

Water recreation, outdoor restaurants, charter fishing and vacation rentals are all feeling the pinch, which could worsen for some businesses in the coming months with Lake Michigan on pace to hit a new record high water level this month. 

Steven Crooks, owner of Montague-based WaterDog Outfitters, is trying to make the best of the season’s lackluster weather so far. The high water backed up storm drains near his business in late May and flooded Business Route U.S.-31, the main road between Whitehall and Montague. 

The flooding continued in his parking lot for several weeks. While that issue has been resolved, the rainy and cool weather pattern held on for much of the month of June. 

“The weather has impacted everything greatly throughout the state,” Crooks said. “We just need warmer weather and sunshine to get this season going.”

WaterDog Outfitters rents and sells kayaks, stand-up paddleboards, bicycles, hammocks, camping equipment and outdoor gear. Crooks said business has been OK, but it could be better. 

The company does not offer guided kayak trips, but customers who rent equipment can leave from WaterDog Outfitters’ property. The high water on the White River and White Lake is making it difficult even for kayaks to get under both the foot bridge and Business Route U.S.-31 bridge, he said. 

Water levels have risen six or seven feet in the last several years, prompting WaterDog to stop renting pontoons and fishing boats because of the access challenges. 

“It is what it is,” Crooks said. “We kind of fluctuate with the temperatures and the water conditions. We’re good. We’ll make do.”

Rained out

To the south, in the quaint coastal community of Saugatuck, the normally calm and scenic Kalamazoo River keeps inching higher throughout the city’s downtown. The water sits mere inches from the top of the seawall through the downtown business district and has spilled onto Water and Lucy streets in recent weeks.

Many waterfront businesses are taking precautions to keep waves and water out by adding temporary boards along their seawalls and docks, filling sandbags or raising docks and walkways.

Kevin Tringali, owner of Bella Vita Vacation Rentals, manages the riverfront Saugatuck Landings Luxury Suites and Marina at 726 Water Street in downtown and represents more than 40 other property owners in the area. He said many of the homes on Lake Michigan have lost beaches because of high water and erosion. 

“We have had to make modifications,” he said. “We have tried to be transparent with our guests. They understand this is an act of nature and this is beyond our control.”

Many renters who book Lake Michigan beach homes plan vacations with extended families and reserve months in advance. To compensate, Tringali is calling guests to let them know about the conditions and offering discounts or beach passes.

For the smaller homes Bella Vita rents in town, business has been down because people are canceling or have avoided making last-minute reservations based on the weather.

“I don’t think it’s because of high water in the city. I think it’s because of the weather we’ve had in June,” he said. “Thankfully, we have really good restaurants and bars and shops here that will kind of offset the rain drops.”

Across the river, high water has flooded first-floor units in Waterside Suites, a riverfront complex near Perryman and Park streets. The units are owned by private owners through the Holiday Hills Yacht Club Resort Condominium Association and rented via BeachWay Resort Inc.

The lower units started taking on small amounts of water in early May, and it has continued to get worse, said Pam Eanes, who serves as the condo association president.

The association closed the first floor and gutted the units to prevent mold and other issues.

Eanes in 2015 bought a second-floor unit, which she primarily rents out, and said she has never seen the water this high. One day, she even saw the water flowing the wrong way from Lake Michigan toward Kalamazoo Lake.

“It flows north but it was actually flowing south,” she said. “Water seeks the lowest level, and we are the lowest level.”

Eanes said the rainy weather has proven more problematic for the local tourism industry.

“I don’t think most of the tourists know about the flooding,” she said. “It’s a tourist town. People want to be there when it’s nice and sunny and do the boating activities.”

Climate to blame?

As of June 21, Lake Michigan and Lake Huron, which are hydrologically connected via the Straits of Mackinac, were the only Great Lakes yet to set record high water levels this year, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The lakes are expected to continue their seasonal rise into this month.

The Corps of Engineers’ weekly water level update for June 28th said Lake Michigan had risen 5 inches from the previous month, or 15 inches higher than a year ago and 33 inches above the long-term average. The report expected the lake to go up another inch by the end of July. 

According to state climatologist Jeffrey Andresen, Michigan and the Great Lakes region will continue to see warmer and wetter climate patterns for the foreseeable future. Andresen served as keynote speaker at Grand Valley State University’s Climate Change Education Solutions Summit held June 12 on the Allendale campus. 

“Arguably the biggest challenges ahead for Michigan and the Midwest will be the frequency and magnitude of heavy rain events and flooding,” Andresen said in a statement. 

Andresen predicts Michigan will experience erratic precipitation in the future, and much of the additional precipitation will come during colder months.

Alan Steinman, director of GVSU’s Robert B. Annis Water Resources Institute on Muskegon Lake, attributes the record-setting water levels to colder winters and more ice coverage on the Great Lakes, which means less evaporation, along with above-average precipitation this spring.

He doesn’t necessarily tie it to climate change, but did say the atmosphere holds 7 percent more moisture for every 1 degree Celsius of warming. 

“Overall, we’ll get more precipitation because we have more moisture held in the atmosphere,” he said. “We do know the earth is warming and the lakes are warming. The data are clear.”

However, the lake levels also are in a constant state of flux. In 2013, the Great Lakes had near-record low water levels and they haven’t been this high since the mid 1980s.

“Back then, we preached patience,” Steinman said of the record lows. “These water levels have been going up and down for the last 12,000 years.”

Higher ground

People who live on lakes or enjoy boating experience firsthand the highs and lows of water level fluctuations. Many docks in marinas, lakes and rivers are currently submerged underwater or lie beyond the water’s edge.

Recreational boating has been affected by flooding and closures at many area boat launches, including Hartshorn Marina boat launch in downtown Muskegon. The city initially closed the ramp for repairs, but water continued to inch into the parking lot and flood portions of the road and Lakeshore Bike Trail.

“That will probably not be open this year,” said Amy Behler, Muskegon’s highway supervisor who also oversees marinas. “We have to wait for the water to go down and pour another pad.”

The water is almost level with the marina’s seawall, meaning any northerly wind pushes waves over the banks or into the marina. Other boat ramps around Muskegon Lake remain open, including Grand Trunk at the end of McCracken Street, Cottage Grove off Lakeshore Drive and Fisherman’s Landing. However, road construction on Lakeshore Drive poses challenges for large boats and trailers to access the Grand Trunk and Cottage Grove launches.

City workers continue to adjust the docks and have added extensions to the docks at Fisherman’s Landing.

“The water is still going to go up in July and August,” Behler said. “I go out every day to see if there is anything wrong with (the docks). The water goes up and down all the time, and we have to take them out and readjust them.”

It’s a similar scene in Spring Lake, Douglas, Saugatuck and Grand Haven’s Harbor Island. The boat launches remained open in late June, but high water has submerged most of the ramps and some docks used to tie off boats. About a foot of water covered Harbor Island’s launch parking lot on the first official weekend of summer.

“It’s being monitored daily,” said Derek Gajdos, Grand Haven’s public works director. “We have done some repairs to the parking lot and the entrance to keep it safe.”

The city will close the launch area if the water continues to rise to the point the department cannot maintain it or it becomes unsafe, he said. The Harbor Island launch off the Grand River is the city’s main municipal ramp to serve Spring Lake, Grand Haven and Lake Michigan.

“It gets used significantly in the summer,” Gajdos said. “We are going to keep it that way as long as we can. We have people with seasonal passes, and we want to make sure those people who still want to use it can.”

High water also has closed sections of bike trails in Muskegon and Spring Lake, along with roads in Grand Haven and Saugatuck. Near Hall’s Sport Center, high water has been an issue for a couple of years. The road commission is supposed to raise the road three feet, and Hall’s Sport Center wants to build up its property and build a seawall to prevent future issues, Grow said.

Despite the disruptions to his business, Grow doesn’t think the high water has affected the industry as a whole. While the related rainy weather served as an inconvenience, the low water the region had six or seven years ago was worse for boaters, he said. 

“I’d rather have too much than not enough,” Grow said. “You can always build up a boat launch or dock and make it higher.” 

 

Read 7104 times Last modified on Monday, 08 July 2019 09:22
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