Bipartisan officials are worried about Michigan’s high water levels and erosion. Can they agree on a solution?

By: - February 12, 2020 6:36 am

Lake Michigan, Manistique | Susan J. Demas

Local, state and federal officials convened this week at Lansing Community College’s West Campus for an all-day summit, called for by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, to address record high water levels across the state and collaborate on solutions going forward.

“As we deal with rising lake levels, there aren’t a lot of things that stop Mother Nature, right?” said Liesl Clark, director of the state Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE), during an online press briefing with state department directors after the Michigan High Water Coordinating Summit.

“We know that some of these solutions really are temporary in nature, and we foresee challenges going forward,” Clark said Monday.

Lake Michigan, Lake Superior and Lake Huron all broke their previous monthly record water levels for January this year. These extreme lake levels are just one of many impacts that climate change will continue to have on the Great Lakes, which are expected to be hit harder by global warming effects than most places around the globe.

Projections show that water levels throughout Michigan could rise an additional 12 inches or more this spring, which could break 120-year records.

“Looking out into the future, weeks to months, we’re seeing no reason to expect that we’re not going to continue that same trend,” said Andrew Dixon of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Clark said that one outcome of the summit was the creation of the ad-hoc Michigan High Water Action Team. The team will meet on a regular basis to ensure close cooperation and communication between all levels of government on the issue, as EGLE will continue to share updates and water level projections from federal partners monitoring the situation.

Local town hall meetings will also be held throughout the state to keep residents in the loop.

“We’ve also been communicating with residents on the lakeshore that they need to take the action that’s necessary, and we’ll be there to work with them as it goes forward,” Clark said.

GOP attention

Lakeshore erosion has been a big topic this legislative session, especially on the Republican side. Just last week, state Rep. Jack O’Malley (R-Lake Ann) announced his plan to create a Flooding and Erosion Control Task Force to address the issue statewide.

On Tuesday, state Rep. Jim Lilly (R-Park Twp.) testified at a committee hearing in support of his new legislation, House Bill 5463, which would allow local governments to issue temporary emergency rulings to slow down water activities near affected areas.

Rep. Jim Lilly | House Republicans photo

“My plan will help preserve our natural resources and communities, and protect families from future damage,” Lilly told the House Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Committee. He said his plan is necessary because the current permitting process takes too long to be effective.

Another lawmaker working closely on the issue, state Rep. Bradley Slagh (R-Zeeland), said in a phone interview on Tuesday that he has been looking into numerous ways to help ease the burden on lakefront property owners. 

One option is legislation to look into whether Whitmer could call on Canada to stop redirecting water into the Great Lakes.

“There is a possibility that it could make a difference in three or four inches of water across the Great Lakes system in a year,” Slagh said. “It’s at least worth the conversation. I don’t know that it’s possible. I don’t know that it’s really even realistic, but it’s at least worth the conversation.”

Rep. Bradley Slagh

He said that with so many communities being impacted, there is unlikely to be a single one-size-fits-all solution to lakeshore erosion across the state.

“For each community, for each homeowner, it’s probably going to take different kinds of answers. What we need to do is figure out, what can we make available to the most people? How do we enable people to keep from losing houses if we can? … It is a multitude of answers,” Slagh said.

As reported by the Detroit News on Friday, former Ambassador Peter Secchia, a major Republican donor, sent a memo to state GOP lawmakers in early November demanding that Republican legislators take action on lakeshore erosion.

Secchia cited his own $6 million lakefront property in Ottawa County that is threatened by rising waters, and seemed to insinuate in the memo that he would be less inclined to continue his political donations to the GOP if the issue was not addressed.

“There seems to be little interest in the Michigan House of Representatives or the Michigan Senate,” Secchia’s memo read in part. “This lack of concern mystifies me. Our property values will diminish greatly … hence, our donations will also diminish.”

Slagh said he has not heard from Secchia personally, and noted that his work on lakeshore erosion started in October – before Secchia sent the letter.

“My understanding was that it was a thought process that you know, ‘people need to work on this or else’ kind of a thing,” Slagh said. “And I think we’ve already, many of us have already taken that into account. We’ve been working on it since before – since October-ish, I think is when I held my first …chance for the community to get together and hear what’s going on from [EGLE]. … So I think we’re already doing it. I don’t know that there’s any concerns or scares about that. It’s just, you know, it’s a conversation piece.”

When asked whether he believes climate change plays a role in rising lake levels, Slagh said no.

“No, it’s just part of nature,” Slagh said. “We’re – it’s part of the natural cycle that happens. Are there climate changes? Maybe there are, but I don’t believe that that’s really what’s driving this.”

In January, U.S. Reps. Fred Upton (R-St. Joseph), Bill Huizenga (R-Zeeland) and Jack Bergman (R-Watersmeet) met with representatives from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Detroit District and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and called for more to be done about lakeshore erosion.

As for a mostly Republican-backed resolution asking Whitmer to declare a statewide emergency along Michigan’s entire lakeshore back in December, the governor declined to do so on Feb. 4. Inspector James Grady of the Michigan State Police explained during the briefing why he believes Whitmer is unlikely to change her mind.

“This is not the normal process for a declaration,” Grady said. “Requests are normally made separately, by counties. … Typically, a state declaration is requested by the local jurisdiction after the jurisdiction has exhausted its resources and the response effort is beyond its capability to address.”

Whitmer’s budget plan

High water levels have already caused millions of dollars in damage to private and public infrastructure and damage to water systems. 

In her executive Fiscal Year 2021 budget proposal last week, Whitmer recommended $40 million in one-time grants to be set aside for local climate-resilient infrastructure projects.

Clark did not elaborate on the funding recommendation, saying it’s still “very early in the budget process” and things could change. She emphasized that the $40 million is meant to tackle erosion mitigation by encouraging local initiatives, indicating that EGLE is attempting to put statewide practices into place.

But Clark did address the permitting process for erosion mitigation work, which some Republican lawmakers have introduced legislation to overhaul the requirement for a permit entirely. She said that currently, EGLE is working faster to grant individual permits for lakeshore erosion mitigation work, and usually turns them around in less than 48 hours.

Dan Eichinger, director of the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), said that high water levels present critical infrastructure challenges to the state’s campgrounds, navigational structures, marinas and roads.

Eichinger did not want to speculate on what the price tag might be on mitigation efforts, like road and shoreline armoring, but said that the DNR will likely need to find a new way to bring in more revenue to make up for whatever the cost may be.

As for the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT), Bureau of Development Director Brad Wieferich said that about 40 known locations around the state that need to be prepared for rising water levels in order to prevent further damage. One of those locations is M-185, the road that encircles Mackinac Island, that Wieferich says is eroding away.

He did not provide the preliminary list of the 40 areas in need of repair, but said they are “all over” the state and estimates the projects to add up to about $100 million. Additionally, about $5 million is needed now just for short-term fixes.

Moving roads inland, purchasing right-of-way, dealing with utilities and addressing drainage issues are just some of the mitigation options for roads. None are cheap.

“These things get real expensive in a hurry,” Wieferich said. “… For MDOT, unless there is emergency money from the federal government, FEMA or federal highway, that has to come out of our budget right now. So, that is going to further tax our already-taxed maintenance resources, or perhaps affect our projects that are in the five-year plan.”

Gary McDowell, director of the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, spoke pointedly about the high water levels and erosion being an effect of climate change. He described Michigan as a sponge full of water, with farmlands not being able to handle more saturation than they already have.

“As far as a cost, at this time we don’t know, but there was over 920,000 acres of Michigan farmland that was not planted last year because of the historic rains,” McDowell said.

“We’re looking at this year as probably even being more bleak than it was last year. … It’s going to be very difficult for our farm community,” McDowell said, adding that when things affect farm communities in Michigan, they eventually affect the rest of the state.

McDowell said the department plans to host a farm crop outlet conference in March to connect resources from the USDA and Weather Service to farmers.

He said the agriculture industry is often a contributor to climate change, but in Michigan, “we want to be part of the solution” to help reverse global warming. McDowell says the agriculture industry should have started on this goal years ago.

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Laina G. Stebbins
Laina G. Stebbins

Laina G. Stebbins covers the environment, Native issues and criminal justice for the Advance. A lifelong Michigander, she is a graduate of Michigan State University’s School of Journalism, where she served as Founding Editor of The Tab Michigan State and as a reporter for the Capital News Service. When Laina is not writing or spending time with her cats, she loves art and design, listening to music, playing piano, enjoying good food and being out in nature (especially Up North).