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Historic high waters: State, federal and local partners collaborate on coordinated response to rising water levels

DNR moves pavilion from shore at Orchard Beach State Park in ManisteeAs part of National Preparedness Month, this article by Jay Eickholt, EGLE's emergency management coordinator, from the most recent State of the Great Lakes report looks at what is being done to respond to rising water levels in Michigan.

Home to more than 11,000 inland lakes, 51,000 miles of rivers and surrounded by four Great Lakes, Michigan communities have a strong connection to water. But this relationship is changing due to climate change and intense weather events that are leading to record amounts of water throughout the state. For coastal communities, this change is constant.

While this summer saw a bit of a reprieve from the extraordinarily high water levels of last year, EGLE continue to be prepared for future fluctuations.

Michigan is in the middle of the wettest one-, three-, and five-year periods since recordkeeping began more than a century ago. Most of the Great Lakes met or broke monthly or all-time records in late 2019 and 2020. The rising waters on the Great Lakes resulted in major shoreline erosion, inland inundation, flooded homes that had been dry for decades and infrastructure impacts from rising surface water and groundwater. The changes have caused concern for many local governments as they struggled to mitigate impacts from high waters.

In late 2019, local emergency managers and the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) began to coordinate and restructure internal processes to help with emergency permit reviews for residential and municipal property protection. Local emergency management continued to engage with state and elected officials about issues communities were facing. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) also issued a notice to the state of Michigan that the impacts from rising water levels would not be eligible for a Stafford Emergency Declaration. Therefore, Michigan would not receive any federal disaster relief.

At the urging of Governor Whitmer and with the full support of state leadership, EGLE formed an inter-agency group consisting of local, state and federal experts. The group was a starting point to engage at all levels of government to streamline state processes to the maximum extent possible to assist local response agencies and residents. In February 2020, a High Water Summit was held in Lansing to bring all levels of government up to date with the high water situation in Michigan and act as a starting point for a core state team to coordinate state efforts and troubleshoot questions that may arise.

Key takeaways from the summit:

  • Local emergency management needs to be engaged with their community and residents to ensure all properties are encompassed in response efforts and assistance is being provided in a uniform way.
  • There would be no federal disaster relief; communities and the state of Michigan would have to coordinate resources and fund any actions.
  • Stakeholders would have to work collaboratively to collect data and complete mapping to show the impacts from high water. This information would help inform future infrastructure development and community recovery efforts.
  • EGLE committed to expedite shoreline protection permitting through its Water Resources Division so public health and critical infrastructure can be protected.
  • A state agency action team would meet regularly to communicate and coordinate efforts to address high water issues.

Since the summit, the state agency action team has met monthly to coordinate response efforts and resources to address high waters. It also has been in regular communication with federal and local agencies. EGLE has continued to expedite permits for shoreline protection efforts such as revetments and other protective measures. These shoreline protection efforts continue to be a large part of individual property owner responses to high water. The permitting of projects on the Great Lakes went from roughly 200 permits in fiscal year 2010 to more than 2,000 in fiscal year 2020.

Michigan's park system has also been heavily impacted by high waters. The Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has been funding protective measures for state lands and parks, as well as assisting with road stabilization that leads to state properties.

One example is a $5 million relocation and shoreline revetment at Orchard Beach State Park in Manistee County to protect a historic pavilion structure at the top of a bluff that was being eroded by high water levels.

The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) has received a grant from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that earmarked funds for mitigation against the environmental health hazards caused by high water.

The DHHS cited recent flooding due to severe storms in Michigan's Upper Peninsula as an example of areas that would be served by the initiative. Funding will be shared with local health departments to better plan and improve resilience in Michigan communities.

The state agency action team will continue to monitor Great Lakes water levels for 2021 and collaborate on a variety of high water and disaster work groups to ensure a coordinated and efficient response at all levels. Efforts are also ongoing to assist local government in identifying at-risk properties.

In addition to responding to immediate challenges due to high waters, the state is partnering with local, state and federal partners to help provide tools and resources to communities to improve resiliency and explore new approaches that protect the environment and public health and safety.

Further research is needed to study the long-term impacts of a hardened shoreline on sediment movement and beach nourishment as a result of many measures taken to address high waters not only in Michigan but across the Great Lakes region.

Photo caption: DNR moves pavilion from shore at Orchard Beach State Park in Manistee.

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