When a brown trout was found swimming at the intersection of Water and Lucy Streets last summer, Saugatuck, Mich., knew it had a problem. High water at the Lake Michigan resort has damaged businesses, eroded beachfront, and flooded parking spaces.
In Toledo, lake levels are so high that some grain ships have to cut off their radar masts to sail under the Anthony Wayne bridge. In Chicago, concern about water damage has reached such a point that mayoral candidates have made it a campaign issue.
It is becoming an inevitable fact around the Great Lakes that as the water rises, so does the pressure to do something about it. Shoreline damage in the basin is on the rise. Higher waters are expected this spring and summer. Some communities have begun to act, but rising concern has not produced a consensus about what can be done.
The current solutions are piecemeal. For example, along Illinois's 63 miles of Lake Michigan shoreline, suburban Lake Forest is in the midst of a big public beach renovation; Chicago has yet to address the problem. When Mayor Harold Washington recently announced a lake-level advisory group, his main foe in next month's Democratic primary called it too little, too late.
``There's an enormous tendency to become very parochial about this,'' says Lake Forest insurance agent George Moloney Jr., driving past that community's $8.7 million project.
While Lake Forest and Chicago can afford such expensive projects, many lakefront communities cannot. ``I don't want millions,'' says Saugatuck city manager Laverne Serne. ``Help me with a little part of it.''
Although the water and brown trout have receded from Water Street during the traditional winter low, Lakes Michigan and Huron are expected to rise again this spring, perhaps breaking records by June. Mr. Serne would like to raise Water Street, but the $600,000 cost nearly equals his entire annual budget. The federal and state governments have not come forth with money.
With limited funds to protect the shoreline, many small communities and lakeshore residents have joined coalitions and are lobbying for lower water levels. Their pressure is beginning to be felt in the United States, but the proposal remains controversial.
One problem is that so many private and government interests are affected by the Great Lakes that many observers are skeptical a compromise can be fashioned. Potential players in any move to regulate lake levels include the US and Canadian governments, the Great Lakes states, the province of Ontario, the US Supreme Court, environmentalists, and an array of lakefront and downstream communities.
But there are signs that a majority is forming on the side of lowering the lakes. Even traditional beneficiaries of high lake levels now say the Great Lakes are too high. According to Jim Doyle, civil works manager of Ontario Hydro, the lakes could be lowered up to a foot without reducing the utility's hydroelectric output.
``I'd like to see it get back to normal,'' adds Don Shefferly, president of an international shipping company in Toledo. In the past year or so, he's seen about 20 grain ships pay from $5,000 to $12,000 to cut off their masts temporarily. This is the only way the ships can clear the Anthony Wayne bridge and sail up the Maumee River to three grain elevators.
Many scientists argue the Great Lakes are so big that man cannot lower them very much. For example, the US Army Corps of Engineers, which monitors the lakes, expects Michigan and Huron to exceed last year's record level for June by about 2 inches. To lower the two lakes by that amount would be the equivalent of using the Sears Tower, the world's tallest building, like a giant bottle, filling it with lake water, dumping it elsewhere, then repeating the process every hour on the hour for the next five months.
``This resource is so huge that no matter what we do, we'll never be able to fine-tune it,'' says Michael J. Donahue, head of research for the Center for the Great Lakes.
Some scientists suggest the real problem is that the lakeshore was built up during several decades of abnormally low levels and that today's so-called highs are really normal over the long run. Mr. Donahue's center is working on zoning and shoreline management to avoid such problems in the future.
But Clifford Sasfy, chairman of the new International Great Lakes Coalition, argues that something needs to be done now. His group, which represents a growing number of lakeshore residents and communities, is lobbying for the immediate and maximum use of man-made controls to lower the lakes. These include shutting off Ontario Hydro's plants at the Ogoki and Long Lac diversions, which are pouring into Lake Superior an extra 5,600 cubic meters of water a second. The group also wants to maximize the water outflow at the Chicago diversion and on Lake Erie, which includes the Black Rock and Welland Canals.
These steps would take 15 years to achieve their full impact, says Benjamin DeCooke, a retired Great Lakes hydrologist. But in three years they could reduce the level of Lake Superior by three-quarters of an inch, the levels of Lakes Michigan and Huron by about 4 inches, Lake Erie by 3 inches, and Lake Ontario by 9 inches.
These declines are not enough to end the shoreline damage, says Mr. Sasfy, but they represent a step in the right direction.
Such steps have not been cost-effective, according to studies by the International Joint Commission, the binational organization that is responsible for the Great Lakes' levels. Nor have longer-term structural changes proposed by some groups been economically justified, the commission says. But with near-record water levels and increasing lakefront damage, both governments have asked the commission to restudy the issue.