Text: Lake Michigan’s Rise & Fall

Lake Michigan's rise in northern Ozaukee County, WI ( © 2016 Elizabeth G Fagan)

In 2015–16, Elizabeth G Fagan wrote the monthly column “Green Talk” for the Ozaukee County News Graphic on behalf of Mequon Nature Preserve. Fagan’s experience as a professional writer spans more than 30 years. She frequently took the photos accompanying her “Green Talk” columns. This article has been updated several times since the original was published in January 2016.

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Lake Michigan, January, 2019, by Elizabeth G Fagan, lakemichigansleftcoast.com, Lake Michigans Left Coast
Lake Michigan, January, 2019, by Elizabeth G Fagan, lakemichigansleftcoast.com, Lake Michigan’s Left Coast

Each of the Great Lakes has an annual rise and fall cycle driven by precipitation, snow melt, and evaporation. Evaporation rates vary with air and water temperatures. Annually, water levels follow a predictable pattern. In the deep-winter months of January and February, water is at its lowest. Winter thaws and warm-season rains bring the highest levels in July and August.

The water levels of Lake Michigan and Lake Huron rise and fall in unison. Beginning in the late 1990s, low precipitation and warm temperatures caused lower-than-average water levels. Residents of Lake Michigan’s shoreline in southeastern Wisconsin enjoyed wide white-sand beaches year-round. Record-low water levels were recorded in January 2013.

In 2014, artist Elizabeth G Fagan purchased a run-down cottage on Lake Michigan’s Left Coast. A large part of the property’s appeal was the beach. Long walks with Rosie, her beloved German Shepherd were imminent. Then the Lake began to rise. By early September of that year, the water level surpassed its historical average for the month.

By July 2015, the Lake was up three feet from its all-time low only a year and a half before. Ozaukee County residents began to see the Lake swallow the shoreline from Mequon to Belgium. The white sandy beach was gone. The Lake retreated intermittently to reveal fresh deposits of lake stones. High waves continued to take down stands of grasses, shrubs, and residents’ barriers between backyard and beach.

January 2016 Green Talk by Elizabeth Fagan
January 2016 Green Talk by Elizabeth Fagan

In late August 2018, a three-day period of heavy rains caused flooding along the Milwaukee River and Cedar Creek, Ozaukee County’s largest waterways. On August 26, 2018, nearly nine inches of rain fell in Port Washington, the county seat. The downtown area was under water, dozens of basements flooded, and major roads were closed. More water flowed into nearby Lake Michigan.

At the end of 2019, all Great Lakes reported even higher water levels. In December, Lake Michigan was 47 inches higher than its historic average—16 inches higher than it was only 12 months earlier. Alarmed residents of Lake Michigan’s Left Coast had never seen such large portions of their properties simply disappear into the ever-rising lake. Massive downed trees created snarls of driftwood on top of infinite supplies of lake stones.

“The shoreline is a driftwood bonanza. Underneath, the rocky beach looks solid but is very unstable. At every step it might give way and cause you to tumble. I know that from first-hand experience!” says Fagan. “My dog won’t even go near it.”

Elizabeth G Fagan @ Lake Michigan, lakemichigansleftcoast.com, Lake Michigans Left Coast
Elizabeth G Fagan @ Lake Michigan

About the Author
Elizabeth G Fagan is an artist, photographer, and writer. A former Chicagoan, Fagan resides in southeastern Wisconsin. She calls her place in the world Lake Michigan’s Left Coast.

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Fagan attended a private arts high school on Connecticut’s Long Island Sound, where she focused on print-making and photography. She went on to acquire a BA in English (Grinnell College & UIC), an MA in Linguistics (UIC), and a certificate in web development (DePaul University). A career in Chicago-area publishing and website design/development gave Fagan advanced professional skills. Following a move to Wisconsin, Fagan devotes much of her time to making art. She’s held part-time sales positions with paint, home-design, and photography retailers.

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