Receding Shorelines

Water levels in the Great Lakes are at historic lows. Local communities are feeling the impact.
by | July 2000

Eight states border on the Great Lakes. Of them, Indiana, with only 45 miles of shoreline along Lake Michigan, has always had the least amount of water for its residents' recreational enjoyment. Nowadays, it has even less. The lake, it seems, is retreating away from shore, leaving surface waters at their lowest level in a generation.

Perhaps nowhere in Indiana are the effects being felt more acutely than in the lakefront town of Michigan City. The city owns and operates a pair of marinas. Although 3 feet less water in the lake doesn't sound like much, it is enough to render 120 of the city's boat slips useless. "Some slips don't have any water at all," says city harbormaster John Rudisell. "They're mud."

At up to $6,600 a slip, Michigan City is seeing a fair bit of revenue wash out to sea. All told, the city stands to lose about $300,000 this year, not to mention the ripple effect on other boating-related industries.

Water levels on four of the five Great Lakes are near the lowest level ever recorded, after three years of unusually warm, dry weather in the region. What's more, the drop has occurred amazingly fast, leaving many observers awed at how quickly Mother Nature can change what was once taken for granted. As the hot temperatures of summer cause even more water to evaporate, state and local governments bordering all of the lakes but Ontario are having to cope with both obvious and subtle effects from receding waterfronts.

In Michigan, the state Department of Environmental Quality has been flooded with dredging permit requests. In Pennsylvania, localities that draw drinking water out of Lake Erie have been on the lookout for increased algae and silt in their intakes. And in Milwaukee, police boats were called out twice in May to tug pleasure boats off a breakwater.

Low water is forcing Racine, Wisconsin, to spend $50,000 on extending a half-dozen boat ramps. Where the concrete ramps used to glide gently into Lake Michigan, there is now an 18-inch drop exposed. In an effort to salvage the summer boating season, the city council declared the situation a "state of emergency," which allowed the work on extending the ramps by 30 feet to proceed without seeking bids.

Like many people around the Great Lakes, Racine city engineer Jim Blazek is trying to find a silver lining in all this. Offshore, the city has a crumbling breakwater that needs repair. The low water has left the structure mostly exposed, he says, which will make the job easier and cheaper.

Indeed, the slightly diminished greatness of the Lakes is not entirely bad. Shoreline anti-erosion efforts, which had been in overdrive from years of high water, are getting a breather. Some communities now suddenly have wide, majestic beaches. And to the chagrin of places such as Michigan City, marinas that have the benefit of deep water are seeing boom times. More boaters are docking at Mentor, Ohio's city-owned marina this year, pushing the docks to near capacity. "We've seen some influx of boaters from shallower parts of Lake Erie," says Kurt Krauss, the city's parks and recreation director.

In addition, underwater relics such as shipwrecks and piers are rising from the waves to remind cities of their past. In Brownstown, Michigan, Lake Erie has given back to the township a historic roadway made of logs. The 18th century road was originally used by early French settlers and fur traders, and later provided a path for troop movements during the War of 1812. Its sudden exposure has created something of a local tourist attraction, The township recently designated the log road as its first historic site.

Brownstown residents probably shouldn't grow too attached to their new landmark, though. After all, there's no telling when the lakes will rise again.