While the Great Lakes have a long history cycling between high and low water levels, what we’re witnessing now is decidedly different. Over the past two years we have seen the highest water levels ever recorded on the Great Lakes. According to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Lake Ontario reached its record high in September 2019. The remaining four Great Lakes and Lake St. Clair all reached monthly records for mean high-water levels in 2020.
These unprecedented high-water levels have had destructive impacts across the entire Great Lakes Basin, including extensive flooding, erosion, and damage to shoreline homes, buildings, infrastructure, harbors, and parks. A particularly severe storm in January led the City of Chicago and the State of Illinois to declare a local disaster and request emergency declarations from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for damages to nearly 30 miles of Lake Michigan shoreline.
Most experts agree that climate change impacts are exacerbating the Great Lakes’ water level cycle. It was only seven years ago that the lakes were coming off a decade of historic low water levels. Since 2013, a historic increase in regional precipitation has driven the lakes to their recent record highs. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Centers for Environmental Information, the preceding 12-, 24-, 48- and 60-month periods leading up to December 2019 were the wettest recorded on the Great Lakes in over 120 years.
The immediate need for enhanced coastal protection is daunting, but the challenges extend beyond the Basin’s 14,000 miles of shoreline. In addition to driving up lake levels, the additional stormwater runoff has had an adverse impact on water quality. Enhanced infrastructure is also needed in upland areas to protect them from flooding while reducing polluting run-off.
This volume of Great Lakes Cities explores how the region’s challenging water level and water quality issues are being addressed through uniquely resilient approaches to blue/green infrastructure development and investment. With a focus on Lake Michigan, these stories and case studies highlight adaptive planning and design strategies that balance short and long-term protection for Great Lakes communities and the watershed. They also advance new approaches and partnerships for shoreline protection, ecological preservation, and community enhancement.