The City of Grand Haven, which owns retail buildings along Chinook Pier, will have to demolish the facilities after high water levels caused flooding and led to mold. The City of Grand Haven, which owns retail buildings along Chinook Pier, will have to demolish the facilities after high water levels caused flooding and led to mold. PHOTO: MARK SANCHEZ

The next water crisis: West Michigan communities face millions in high water damage

BY Sunday, February 02, 2020 06:15pm

GRAND HAVEN — When the popular Harbor Island boat launch became unusable because of flooding last spring, Grand Haven City Manager Pat McGinnis thought it was a big deal. 

The persistent flooding last year meant the boat launch generated about $15,000 in users fees, well off the average of $80,000 in revenue the city usually brings in. 

Even so, McGinnis now views the boat launch issues with a new perspective. 

“That was really relatively minor,” McGinnis said of the effect of the flooding at the boat launch. “At the time, I was feeling like it was a big deal. Other things have dwarfed that kind of impact.” 

In Grand Haven, three waterfront commercial buildings will need to be demolished because of mold caused by levels in the Grand River channel, which connects to Lake Michigan. As well, some streets in the city remain under water, and huge potholes and sinkholes are developing in the parking lot near the Harbor Island facility. 

When the water levels recede, the city will need to address the damage at a cost well into the millions of dollars, McGinnis estimates.

The troubles stem from historically high levels in the Great Lakes, which the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers forecasts will continue to rise in 2020 and stay above record levels by 1-4 inches at least through the first six months of the year. 

While private homes falling into Lake Michigan as a result of shoreline erosion grab the most headlines, local municipalities are shouldering the effects of high water on public infrastructure, and they’re bearing that burden alone, without the help of state or federal resources. 

Lake Michigan water levels have reached new record highs that are about three feet above their long-term average levels and more than five feet higher than they were in 2012 and 2013.

The Army Corps predicts the water could rise another foot this year, putting coastlines, homes and beaches at risk. As well, the levels threaten to overflow sewers and cause additional flooding on public and private properties.

The threat spurred the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) on Jan. 16 to send a letter asking local municipalities and others to complete vulnerability analyses that will guide them in mitigating the effects of high water.

“What we’re looking for is people to go through these assessments and determine if higher flows impact them,” said Phil Argiroff, assistance division director in EGLE’s water resources division. 

EGLE also will post guidance on its website regarding how to handle erosion issues, Argiroff told MiBiz.

At the same time, many shoreline municipalities are already feeling those effects. McGinnis completed an informal poll of West Michigan communities regarding the damage they have already seen from high water. The nine communities he spoke with incurred more than $22 million in damage total so far. 

“The public interest we have is in our sanitary sewer. If that gets backed up, we’re going to have sanitary sewer releases into the freshwater in Michigan,” McGinnis said. “The roads and the parking lots and the boardwalk areas that are getting completely inundated are public investments we’ve got to correct.”

In Spring Lake, the village saw severe erosion along both edges of its peninsula, beginning in 2018. Its fishing piers are under water, and the village has lost at least one beach. In a small community with a general fund of only $1.5 million, the costs to repair these public amenities could be insurmountable, said Village Manager Christine Burns.

“We’re probably not going to be able to provide the level of service to our residents that they have historically seen,” Burns said. “We’re going to have public property that’s going to be closed, that’s going to be under water.” 

The effects so far have led McGinnis to advocate in Lansing for some kind of assistance to pay for damage from the water levels. McGinnis and other community leaders met with a House Appropriations subcommittee last week. Legislators also are waiting for Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s response after sending a letter requesting an emergency declaration at the end of 2019. 

Whitmer and EGLE previously announced permits for shoreline protection would be expedited for people with at-risk homes and infrastructure.

McGinnis said he sees legislators both in Lansing and Washington putting high water issues on the front burner. He expects it will take a combination of local, state and federal dollars to fix all of the issues after water levels recede.

“We need to clamor to let people know this is emergent,” he said. “We need to look at our rules and regulations and our willingness to declare this an emergency — let’s act.”

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