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 (WI) 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 G Fagan. “My dog won’t even go near it.”
By January 2022, a small bit of beach appeared, but millions of rocks make navigating the shoreline a risky business.
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. 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.
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