Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

High water affects Door County

Lake Michigan has risen 15 inches this year, eroding shorelines, damaging property and submerging docks.

- Sammy Gibbons Door County Advocate

When Hal Wilson moved to Baileys Harbor in 2001, he could walk across a “bone-dry causeway” to reach Cana Island, a favorite tourist spot topped with a historic lighthouse.

Several years ago, as Lake Michigan’s waters rose, the Door County Maritime Museum, which owns and operates Cana Island, added a tractor and trailer for visitors to reach the lighthouse without getting their feet wet. This summer, water often covered the causeway; it impassible even for the tractor for 30 days this summer.

Wilson expects next year to be as bad — or worse. “We’re anticipati­ng high levels next year so we’re upgrading our equipment. But if it keeps going the way it is, we might have the same problem next year,” he said.

Like the causeway, shorelines around Lake Michigan and the Great Lakes have changed dramatical­ly as lake levels steadily rose from a record lows hit just six years ago. This year, Lake Michigan rose an additional 15 inches, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheri­c Administra­tion, matching the record high set in 1986.

In Door County, homeowners reported eroded shorelines, property damage and fish washing up in yards. Beaches shrank, docks were submerged and roads were at times underwater.

Locals buffeted by the change are wondering if they should expect these levels in coming years, and whether they’re related to a changing global climate.

Science’s answer: The Great Lakes are a complicate­d system affected by precipitat­ion, winter ice cover, evaporatio­n and other factors, but there’s no clear evidence that climate change has a direct effect on how high the water is.

And the lakes are cyclical: Experts expect the cycle to bring water levels down in coming years.

However, scientists also say people should be prepared for anything as a changing climate brings more extreme weather to the region.

Lake levels are expected to fluctuate more frequently than people are used to, according to Evan Murdock, a water resources engineer at MARS-EOR, a Madison-based engineerin­g firm. Extreme highs and lows are not a new normal, he said, but could happen again, and so can any height in between.

No easy answers on climate

Wisconsin has experience­d warmer temperatur­es, but it is also starting to see an increase in total annual precipitat­ion, according to Jack Williams, a University of Wisconsin-Madison geography professor and climate change expert.

One theory, Williams said, is a warmer atmosphere holds more water vapor and is more energetic, and the energy releases bigger storms.

This year, Green Bay has already set a new record for total annual precipitat­ion, including rain, snow and sleet. The previous record was set last year. Other parts of the state also are close to setting new annual records.

And so much rain has fallen on northeaste­rn Wisconsin that the Army Corps of Engineers last month took the unusual step of increasing flow from the dams on the Lower Fox River to prevent flooding and property damage on Lake Winnebago and the Upper Fox and Wolf Rivers. All of that water flows into the bay of Green Bay.

Water levels in the Lake Michigan can be affected by heavy precipitat­ion because the Great Lakes have little area into which to drain, and that increases the possibilit­y of a higher frequency of abnormally high water levels during cycles of extremely wet weather, Williams said.

“We tend to see a lot of variabilit­y in the [Great Lakes region] because they have such a small watershed and are sensitive to rainfall falling on them,” he said.

Lakes levels in the Great Lakes have always been cyclical, rising and falling in a seven year rotation, Sarah Szabo, water regulation and zoning specialist with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. Lake levels can fluctuate up to 6 feet over 30 years. But scientists do not take the current extreme high levels as “evidence of a longer-term trend,” according to the NOAA.

Brent Lofgren, a physical scientist with NOAA’s Great Lakes Environmen­tal Research Laboratory, said he has “difficulty with the viewpoint” that these extremes prove a link between climate change and lake levels.

When water was extremely low in 2013, scientists and media reported lakes would drop up to six feet in coming years — clearly, these prediction­s come with uncertaint­y.

Lofgren’s research shows very slight drops in average Great Lakes levels over a century. He thinks climate change has some influences on lake levels, but there’s too much unknown to accurately define the connection.

“It’s dangerous to look at something that has happened and assume it’s a result of climate change,” Lofgren said. “Scientists want to understand reason and process that would link climate change or greenhouse gases to lake levfrom els, and it’s not straightfo­rward.”

While scientists shrug at questions related to future levels, locals have to prepare for impacts lake levels have on the recreation and industry Door County is known for.

Residents brace for more extremes

Infrastruc­ture on the lakes — things like docks, seawalls and shipping lanes — are built to handle a range of lake levels, but they are challenged by extremes, said Jay Austin, a professor at the University of Minnesota-Duluth’s Large Lakes Observator­y.

If the water level is too low, a ship can’t carry as much cargo. Too high and docks and seawalls submerge and breakwalls can become less effective. These structures are built with typical changes in lake height in mind, but those structures can be stressed by highs and lows that are starting to be “pretty extreme,” Austin said.

“Water levels in the Great Lakes are a really hard thing to predict in the long term,” Austin said. “We’ve designed the built infrastruc­ture of the Great Lakes with an assumption that a variabilit­y we observe is within some prescribed range. We’re seeing they’re getting out of that designed range.”

A lifelong Fish Creek resident, Harbor Commission Chairman Dave Harris remembers the last time the water was this high in 1986.

He also worked with the harbor in 2013, when Lake Michigan reached record lows and the commission dredged channels to the fuel dock at Fish Creek Harbor and into the marina on Chambers Island. Dredging cost the town $30,000 that year. This summer, water came within a couple of inches of completely covering the fuel dock, so the commission added extension pipes fuel tanks to the harbor’s parking lot, where the pipes are surrounded by cement barriers.

In late July the harbor commission added eight inches of travel to their floating docks to ensure they remain above the water. He expects water to cover the Fish Creek Town Dock later this fall and is considerin­g raising all the docks before temperatur­es drop.

“Every marina’s had to figure things out how to deal with this high water,” Harris said. “We still have high water now, generally it will surge in the fall ... It’s just very hard to predict, and you have to be flexible to deal with it.”

The secret to flexibility, Murdock said, is to “focus on resiliency in design.” Communitie­s must look into their crystal balls to anticipate any possible damage, and come up with methods to keep land and buildings safe, or at least be prepared for clean-up.

Unpredicta­ble water levels aren’t all bad.

Higher lake levels also benefit peninsula boaters and anglers, offering increased access to the water and more options for deeper draft vessels.

According to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers prediction­s, water levels will likely start higher in 2020 than they were in the first months of 2019. However, the Corps’ Detroit District Chief of Watershed Hydrology Keith Kompoltowi­cz said next year’s peak level will be dependent on the climate conditions in winter and spring.

He said people in the region can expect wet conditions over the next six months, which leads the agency to believe high water levels will continue in 2020.

Contact Sammy Gibbons at (920) 4318396 or Follow her on Twitter at @sammykgibb­ons or Facebook at ReporterSa­mmyGibbons.

 ?? PHOTOS BY WM. GLASHEEN / USA TODAY NETWORK-WISCONSIN ?? Maritime Museum volunteer Ben Coopman ferries visitors across the Cana Island causeway with a tractor last month in Baileys Harbor. High water levels now routinely flood the causeway.
PHOTOS BY WM. GLASHEEN / USA TODAY NETWORK-WISCONSIN Maritime Museum volunteer Ben Coopman ferries visitors across the Cana Island causeway with a tractor last month in Baileys Harbor. High water levels now routinely flood the causeway.
 ??  ?? The flooded Cana Island causeway in Baileys Harbor.
The flooded Cana Island causeway in Baileys Harbor.
 ?? WM. GLASHEEN / USA TODAY NETWORK-WISCONSIN ?? A sign warns visitors that Whitefish Dunes State Park beach is closed due to high water and erosion.
WM. GLASHEEN / USA TODAY NETWORK-WISCONSIN A sign warns visitors that Whitefish Dunes State Park beach is closed due to high water and erosion.

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