'That's just part of the cycle'

Marie Havenga • May 16, 2019 at 1:00 PM

Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of stories we’ll publish on the rising water levels in the Great Lakes and the way those levels are felt locally.

Whether you're at a gas station, garage sale or grocery store, the conversation topic is almost inevitable these days — high water levels.

Many stationary docks are underwater. Some owners of waterfront properties are transitioning to floating docks, and those installing boat lifts are placing them close to shore.

Parents who typically enjoy taking their youngsters to beaches, such as Lakeside Beach in Spring Lake, are shocked at the lack of shoreline. The sidewalk, instead of leading to a beach, leads into the water.

Spring Lake Township resident Tim Boelema said he's switching his entire dock system due to the high water.

“I'm having to convert to floating docks because the water is too deep to sink my normal poles,” he said. “(Boats) making a wake has become a huge problem as the waves now come over our seawall and damage our yard.”

Barb Lamancusa said the water on Petty's Bayou “has completely covered our patio and extended beyond the patio into the yard. We cannot put our dock in — thus, our boat won't be in anytime soon, either.”

Boelema's and Lamancusa's stories are not isolated incidents.

Rocky McPherson, who owns the Spring-Lake based Rocky's Dock and Hoist service, said his customers are having to adjust with the water levels.

“People won't be able to put their docks in as far as they want,” McPherson said, adding that they've been installing some docks parallel to seawalls because the water is too deep to put dock legs in.

“We put a boat lift in yesterday and got a call that it was underwater today,” he said recently.

While installing a boat lift for Renee and Erik Denslow on Petty's Bayou late last week, McPherson had to place it near the point where the dock meets land, instead of its customary place near the end of the dock.

McPherson said it will likely be a season full of dock and hoist relocations, if and when water levels go down.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reports that Great Lakes levels have been rising steadily for several years, but melting snow and recent heavy rainfall have augmented conditions, projecting to record levels for Lake Superior and Lake Erie. Cold temperatures and ice on Lake Michigan kept evaporation to a minimum.

No wakes

Spring Lake Lake Board member Samantha Verplank, who lives on the main body of the lake, said boat captains need to be conscientious during high water threats and slow down. Way down. Just because wakes are allowed for vessels less than 26 feet in length in some areas of Spring Lake doesn't mean it's safe, she said.

Motoring at no-wake speeds could save property damage, or even lives.

“You would not believe the docks under water and, with the wake, it is dangerous,” Verplank said. “The water is almost to Lake Street when you drive around by (Lakeside) Beach.”

Verplank said she recently witnessed a boat captain navigating full-throttle across Spring Lake.

“I am a Lake Board member and I have been advocating for slow, no-wake during the weekends from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. because of the crazy boat traffic,” she said.

Alan Steinman, director of Grand Valley State University's Annis Water Resources Institute, said boaters need to be mindful of their wakes.

“Erosion is certainly a problem,” he said. “People need to be conscious because their wakes will cause damage”

Water levels are about 18 inches above normal, but still 9 inches below the all-time high in 1986.

Be patient

As long as we don't encounter any major storms, Steinman said the water should recede a bit by the middle of summer.

“Ten years ago, people were complaining that the water was too low,” he said. “People were clamoring for a dam in the St. Clair River to hold the water back. We said, 'By the time you get a permit, the water levels will be back up.' These lakes historically have gone up and gone down. That's just part of the cycle. I can't say it's related to any kind of climate change. I will say, these water levels will go back down. I can't say if it will be next year or in 3-5 years, but they will go back down.”

Steinman said there's not much humans can do, except be patient.

“Patience is the No. 1 quality,” he said. “I know it's not much of a solace to people experiencing high water levels, but Mother Nature ends up having the ultimate call. If you're in a boat, be careful. Be careful about your wake and be conscientious about your neighbors' properties.”

Steinman said he doesn't think the high water will impact the ecology of the lake, or any plants, fish or other organisms.

“If you like to fish and you're being flooded out, there's not as much vegetation, but I think there should be enough vegetation that can survive high water levels that it shouldn't be an issue,” he explained. “There are certain economic sectors that will benefit from this — from a carrier's (freighter's) perspective, this is good news — they can carry more cargo.”

Spring Lake Village Manager Chris Burns said high water levels have been causing a lot of issues locally.

“We've been dealing with erosion issues for a number of years,” she said. “We fixed a sinkhole at Mill Point Park two years and and we need to fix a sinkhole at the north end of Jackson. The Mill Point Park parking lot has flooded because the water has nowhere to go.”

Burns said it's a challenge to make repairs because, due to continued high water levels, the repairs don't last.

“We replaced the sidewalk at Lakeside Beach a couple of years ago, only to lose it again last summer,” she said. “There is actually very little beach left as the water comes right up to the road.”

The muskrats are the only ones who seem to be enjoying the high water.

“The muskrats are breeding like rats, and their burrows are jeopardizing the integrity of our riverbank at Tanglefoot Park,” Burns said.

What a difference a few years make.

“Back in 2013, when water levels were at all-time lows, we were spending a lot of money on dredging,” Burns said. “Now, we're spending money on sinkholes.”

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