Lake Michigan’s Rise & Fall

Motley Beach, Lake Michigan, 12x12, by artist Elizabeth G Fagan, view her online gallery Lake Michigan's Left Coast at lakemichigansleftcoast.com

Artist Elizabeth G Fagan is formerly a professional writer. She volunteered to write the monthly column “Green Talk” for the News Graphic in Ozaukee County, Wisconsin. This essay is from the column’s archives. See more “Green Talk”


January

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, Lake Michigan began to rise. By early September, 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.

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 Elizabeth Fagan. “My dog won’t even go near it.” In January 2021, there was still no beach to wander.


Elizabeth Fagan, Lake Michigans Left Coast, lakemichigansleftcoast.com
Elizabeth Fagan, Lake Michigans Left Coast, lakemichigansleftcoast.com

About the Author

Elizabeth G Fagan is a writer and artist who resides on Lake Michigan’s shoreline in southeastern Wisconsin—a place she calls Lake Michigan’s Left Coast.

Contact Elizabeth G Fagan

Fagan attended The Hammonasset School, a private arts high school in Connecticut, where she began writing and taking photographs. She earned a BA in English at Grinnell College (Grinnell, Iowa) and the University of Illinois, Chicago (UIC). She has an MA in Linguistics with a specialization in teaching English as a second language (ESL) from UIC. Fagan later gained an associate degree in Web Development from DePaul University in Chicago.

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