Lake Michigan Nears Historic Water Levels. What’s Happening, and Why

If you’ve walked along the lakefront lately, you’ve probably noticed that the water level is high. The Army Corps of Engineers has, too.

“A record high is in reach for Lake Michigan and Lake Huron for the month of June,” says Keith Kompoltowicz, chief of watershed hydrology at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Detroit District, who overseas Great Lakes water level forecasting. Lake Michigan is currently at 581.72 feet, just 1 inch below the record set in 1986 for the month of June.

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As water spills onto the lakefront path between Ohio Street and North Avenue, pedestrians and cyclists can still get by safely because the lake is calm. But when the lake starts churning, as it did last week, it not only makes it riskier for passersby, it also can cause serious shoreline erosion.

Ethan Theuerkauf is a coastal geologist at the University of Illinois. He’s using drone photography to map erosion at Illinois Beach State Park in Zion for the Illinois Geological Survey.

“We’re using this to basically generate a bunch of repeated, aerial photographs to quantify how the beach is eroding,” Theuerkauf said.

And it is eroding. His photos show more than 100 feet of shoreline loss in some areas – and more than 300 feet in others. And the erosion does more than take away precious sunbathing space.

“We’re not only losing beach,” he says, “were losing coastal habitat and home to water fowl, coastal animals and just rare and endangered plants as well.”

And when the water level is high, small waves can have a big impact.

“With the high lake level right now, a 2-foot or even 3-foot wave is going to generate some shoreline erosion. And of course when we get fall storms high lake level plus fall storms spell a lot of shoreline erosion,” he said.

When the lake level was at a record high in 1986, there was significant damage to Chicago’s lakefront, according to Joel Brammeier, president and CEO of the Alliance for the Great Lakes. “Over the last 30 years, Chicago has spent – along with the feds – more than $300 million on buildings shoreline protection projects, which are designed to prevent flooding of Lake Shore Drive, protect the lakefront park system, and make sure that we’re ready for the next record high,” Brammeier said.

Smaller Great Lakes cities with fewer resources may see more damage as a result of the high lake levels, says Brammeier. But he thinks Chicago should fare pretty well. “I think we’re protected for now. Whether we start to see more extremes in the future to challenge us again, that remains to be seen.”

But what’s behind these intense water levels?

“In a nutshell, the main reason is it really just has rained a lot,” says Scott Collis, an atmospheric scientist at Argonne National Laboratory. “In May we had 8.25 inches of rainfall in Chicago, where our average is 3.68 inches, so it’s a record rainfall amount.”

Collis says all that rain is overwhelming to soil around the region, which can only soak up so much water.

“Once [the soil] is saturated, all that water runs straight off into the Great Lakes rather than being absorbed into the soil and evaporated,” he said.

And for those hoping we might finally get some summer weather, Collis says to hang in there.

“At least for the next couple of weeks, we’re going to be in a colder, wetter, pattern,” Collis said. “But this is Chicago, and things will change. It’s one of the most seasonal cities I’ve ever experienced.”

Video: Watch our full interview with scientist Scott Collis.

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