Lake Michigan is rising, thanks to nature, which is a better steward of the Great Lakes than man, even though it’s taking away some of our beaches
When Port Washington’s south beach was opened to the public several years ago, a sign advising “End of Public Beach” was posted at the south limit of the beach. The sign was placed at the base of the bluff about 25 feet from the water’s edge. Today, lake waves lap at the sign post. The sign didn’t move; the lake did.
The shrinking of Port Washington’s public beaches is a graphic measure of the remarkable rise of the Lake Michigan water level in 2014. The lake is 14 inches higher than it was one year ago. The Army Corps of Engineers Lake Survey estimates it will rise another inch by this time in August.
This is a good thing, of course. In recent years, Lake Michigan was literally wasting away, to the point where in the winter of 2013 it reached the lowest level ever recorded. The Great Lakes are the world’s most important source of freshwater; the fast falling of their water levels represented nothing less than the loss of a precious resource.
Yet even good things can come with consequences. Disappearing beaches and shore erosion come with high water. Port’s gorgeous north beach is less gorgeous this summer because it is about half of last year’s width. And the south beach can’t be walked on with dry feet when the surf is up, a reminder that in high-water times of the past the beach south of the power plant pretty much ceased to exist. Waves crashed on the clay bluffs and what beach remained was made of stones instead of sand.
One of the coldest winters on record, which blocked evaporation of lake water by covering more than 90% of the surface of the Great Lakes with ice, followed by a cold, cloudy, wet spring, account for this summer’s higher water. No one knows whether this is a trend, but there certainly is room for the water to rise: The lake level is still below its long-term average and is more than 3 feet lower than the all-time high recorded in 1986.
This year’s water-level jump caught the Lake Survey and other lake watchers by surprise, which reminds us that humans don’t get to decide how high or low the lake goes. They can influence it, as the Army Engineers did when they flubbed a dredging project by creating an enormous outlet at the foot of Lake Huron that lets Lake Michigan-Huron water gush into the St. Clair River. The outlet accounts for several inches of lost lake level each year, and must be fixed, but compared to nature’s effect on the volume of water in the lakes, it’s small stuff.
It’s a good thing humans can’t regulate lake levels. Judging from their performance in the aspects of the Great Lakes they can control, they would surely mess it up. Even after efforts to limit pollution by sewage and industrial effluent have been largely successful, non-point pollution continues to foul lake water. Water quality at Wisconsin’s Lake Michigan beaches is among the worst in the nation. And among the worst of the worst is the lake water at Harrington Beach State Park in rural Belgium, a result mainly of agricultural runoff.
You wouldn’t know the water off the beaches has high levels of E. coli by looking at it, because it is crystal clear; in fact, shockingly clear, probably clearer than at any time since melting glaciers filled the lakes. Researchers have reported seeing the bottom of Lake Michigan with the naked eye from vessels floating in water 100 feet deep.
The pellucid water is the result of filtering by invasive saltwater mussels. First came zebra mussels in the ballast water of ocean going ships, and nothing was done to stop them. And then came the bigger, more destructive and now more numerous quagga mussels, which also have had a virtually free pass to the lakes. The creatures clarify the water—every drop of water in Lake Michigan, scientists have said— by sucking the plankton out of it. The destruction of this food source has all but eradicated one of the most important human-food fish in Lake Michigan, the yellow perch.
The mussels are still coming, perhaps soon to be followed by the next big invasive threat, the Asian carp that ecologists say could wipe out the surviving native species. While the monstrous fish mass behind a likely-to-fail electronic screen in the Illinois waterway, the fail-safe solution—closing the outlets of the Chicago canal system to Lake Michigan—gets nothing more than lip service.
We may have some gripes about the way Mother Nature handles the ups and downs of the Great Lakes, but compared to how humans are dealing with their part of management of the lakes, she’s doing just fine.