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How Can Municipalities in Michigan Deal with High Water Levels?

During 2019, many municipalities throughout Michigan, both on the Great Lakes and involving inland lakes, experienced severe high water problems. Those problems include shoreline erosion and degradation, flooded basements, interference with municipal water and sewer systems, overflowing retention and detention basins, closed roads, crumbling infrastructure and many other water challenges. For the Great Lakes, the United States Army Corps of Engineers believes that water levels in Lake Michigan and Lake Huron may be from 10 to 20 inches higher during the summer of 2020 than in 2019. That may spell disaster for a number of Michigan communities.


What can a municipality do? Unfortunately, municipal options are probably limited and will generally involve triage or mitigation rather than preventative measures. Following are several courses of action that a lakefront municipality can take to help minimize negative high water level impacts on the community:

  1. Impose a moratorium on building in high water and flooded areas until the appropriate ordinances can be enacted.
  2. Increase the setback requirements for lake, river, stream and wetlands areas for zoning and building purposes.
  3. For municipalities that have Lake Michigan or Lake Huron frontage, enact an ordinance requiring that all dwellings, fixtures and structures that are likely to fall into the lake soon must either be moved back or removed (in order to prevent debris from ending up in the lake).
  4. Apply for state and federal emergency grants and funds.
  5. Urge both the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy and the United States Army Corps of Engineers to declare high water emergencies and take action along the shores of Lakes Michigan and Huron and inland rivers.
  6. Work cooperatively with the adjoining municipalities.
  7. Adopt resolutions urging the Michigan Governor and the United States President to declare high water emergency areas in Michigan and provide emergency funding to affected Michigan communities.
  8. Streamline and simplify the procedure for obtaining permits and approvals for seawalls, break walls, rip rap, etc.
The sooner that municipalities (and the state) plan and take action for future water emergencies, the better. Acting when the water emergency actually occurs or is advanced may be too late.
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