This year, for the second time since 1973, Great Lakes water levels hit a record high for this century. Here on the southern shore of Lake Michigan you don't have to walk far to see the effects. Several homes perch precariously on bluffs where the forces of erosion have eaten away the sandy base. Any supporting pillars tend to be very close to the water's edge.
Edward Rackas, out for a sunset stroll with his daughter along the partly washed out lakefront road, points to the bluff where he parks his car. ``It's eroded back about 20 feet just in the last three years,'' he says. ``There's a lot less beach now.''
Many who live along the Great Lakes system's more-than-3,000 miles of shoreline rushed accordingly to apply for legal permits to install shore-protection devices that might slow flooding and erosion.
``We normally process 400-to-500 applications a year, but this year the number has almost doubled,'' confirms Chris Shafer who heads the Great Lakes shoreline division of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.
And there are indications, from scientists who monitor water levels and long-range weather predictions, that the worst may not yet be over for those who live along the world's largest freshwater-lake system.
The usual late-fall storms of October and November are expected to pose a continuing challenge. ``It's the storms superimposed on the high water levels that really cause the flooding,'' says Dr. Frank Quinn, a hydrologist with the Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
Also, scientists say current high-water levels may prove more the norm than the exception in years to come. Higher-than-normal rainfall and colder temperatures during the last few decades have resulted in less evaporation. This has led to levels two-to-four feet higher than usual. A number of scientists also say cooler, rainier weather is likely to become more common. Some climatologists say the world is in the early stages of another ``ice age.''
The problem of how best to weather current-and-future high-water levels remains a troublesome one for lake neighbors.
With this year's highs, many who live along the lower lakes have been pressing their congressmen to find ways to have more water held back in higher-elevation lakes like Superior and more water let out at such points as Chicago which taps Lake Michigan for its water supply. But there are carefully regulated legal limits to such options and the effect for all the effort and cost involved is often minimal.
Last spring the US-Canadian International Joint Commission did try to ease the situation by temporarily holding more water back from the system in Lake Superior. But Lee Botts, director of the Great Lakes Project at Northwestern University and founder of the Lake Michigan Federation, says the effect on the lower lakes may not be felt until November and probably will amount to only one-to-three inches.``People really want to see one or two feet go down -- not just a few inches,'' says Dr. Quinn.
A number of lakeshore neighbors and communities have tried to counter high-water levels and protect their property by putting up physical barriers such as groins and bulkheads. Most are expensive and the effect is usually only a temporary slowdown.
For communities eligible and requesting it, the US Army Corps of Engineers will build a concrete or wooden dike parallel to the shoreline. But in contrast to the period of high-water levels 12 years ago, when dikes costing $40 million were installed, the corps has not had many requests this year. Michael O'Bryan of the corps' Detroit-district office says of 25 communities eligible, only five have opted to develop programs and only one dike is actually under construction.
Reasons? The dikes are no longer wholly funded by Washington. Communities must pay some share. And towns must agree to maintain the dikes for a full 25 years. Most had long since removed earlier dikes so as not to spoil the view or property values.
Experts agree the most effective answer to damage from flooding and erosion is to not build so close to the shore in the first place. Wisconsin has been weighing the idea of requiring realtors to warn property buyers of erosion dangers, according to Lee Botts. ``I've talked to many people who've bought homes who had no idea there might be a problem,'' she says.
The Michigan Legislature last summer set up a program by which homeowners whose property is endangered may get low-interest loans to move homes back from the water's edge. Michigan's Shafer says only two applications have come in, but that more are expected.
``There's always a tendency to try to find somebody else to blame, but I think a lot of shore property owners are becoming aware that it's primarily a natural phenomenon,'' says Dr. Quinn. ``I've seen a larger outpouring of public information this year than anytime in the last 25 years.'' First of two stories. Next: reviving Great Lakes fisheries