Grand Haven Tribune: High water levels lead to ‘maintenance nightmare’
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High water levels lead to ‘maintenance nightmare’

Alexander Sinn • May 8, 2019 at 12:00 PM

Editor’s note: This is the first 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.

Amid significant rainfall and snowmelt this spring, water levels on the Great Lakes are expected to crest at historic levels this year.

The high water is having adverse impacts on local boating and infrastructure — from upriver launches to the end of the pier.

At Hall’s Sports Center on Harbor Island Drive, the Grand River’s south channel has swept into the parking lot and over the road. Grand Haven Public Works Director Derek Gajdos said the road has been closed to passing traffic, as treacherous potholes lurk beneath the water.

The crumbling road could especially spell trouble for truck traffic that often merges onto U.S. 31 at the location, he said. There are no quick fixes until the water recedes, which the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers predicts could not happen for much of the summer. 

“We’ve been monitoring that for about a year, then finally this spring it just crested over,” Gajdos said. “It’s a maintenance nightmare once that forms, and underwater it’s almost impossible to repair.”

On Tuesday, boaters at Harbor Island’s municipal docks waded through several inches of water to launch their vessels. Electrical lines and docks at the Municipal Marina had to be lifted out of the water this week, but Gajdos said these actions were due to damage from storms over the winter.

Gajdos said contractors for the catwalk installation project on the south pier have concerns that windy conditions combined with the high water levels could delay the work. The fabrication of a new catwalk was completed this month and installation is expected to begin in June.

“A 1-foot wave will be crashing over the lower portion of the pier, which is easy to do even with boat wake,” Gajdos said. “Those present challenges for the contractor. We’ll have to wait and see.”

The Army Corps of Engineers predicts the high water levels will remain throughout the Great Lakes into August, by which time Gajdos said dry conditions usually allow for repairs such as pothole patching. 

The corps forecasts Lake Michigan will crest 7-10 inches above the 2018 mark, and 25 inches or more above the long-term average, according to Keith Kimpoltowicz, chief watershed hydrologist for the corps’ Detroit District. The record highs were set in 1986, he said. 

In 2013, water levels were at record lows throughout the region. That was the lowest point in a long period of declining water levels, Kimpoltowicz said. Since then, the lakes and rivers have been steadily rising.

“We’ve seen evidence and instances of coastal flooding on all of the Great Lakes, especially recently,” he said. “Even though we’re not at records yet on lakes Michigan and Huron, the impacts of high water will still be felt.”

Records that date back to the 1950s are expected to be broken on Lake Superior, Lake Erie and Lake St. Clair. 

The forecast for water levels is determined by “net basin supply,” Kimpoltowicz explained. This includes the amount of rainfall on the lakes plus inland runoff, minus evaporation. The past four of six years saw above-average quantities, he said.

Coastal flooding is ongoing around Duluth, Minnesota, and portions of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

“Coastal erosion is happening, as well, when we have these large storm systems churning up lakes and causing large wakes,” Kimpoltowicz added, which is taking a toll on Wisconsin's Lake Michigan shoreline and southwestern Michigan.

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