University awards grants for study of lake levels

By Irene Park, Daily Staff Reporter
Published March 24, 2015

University grants are aiming to explore the impacts of the historically high rate of water level fluctuation in the Great Lakes.

The University’s Graham Sustainability Institute awarded seven grants, totaling $70,000, to American and Canadian researchers studying how Michigan residents are adjusting to the fluctuations.

John Callewaert, director of the Integrated Assessment Center at the Graham Sustainability Institute, said changes in the lakes’ water levels could have a significant impact on regional habitats, recreation and shorefront management.

To study those impacts, the University will award $10,000 over a six-month period to each of seven teams of researchers to consider policy and management options for shoreline residents, businesses and government officials to adapt to the water level instability.

Later this year, four or five of the seven teams will be selected as part of the University’s Great Lakes Water Levels Integrated Assessment to participate in a more detailed project to help communities determine options to minimize the negative impacts of the water level fluctuations.

According a report by The Nature Conservancy and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Great Lakes satisfy the needs of more than 45 million people and “serve as the backbone for a $4 trillion regional U.S. economy.”

The report noted that the lakes’ water levels can serve as indicators of climate change. Water levels rise and fall naturally; however, the rate of this fluctuation has been historically high. In 2013, Lake Michigan and Lake Huron in particular reached historically low water levels.

NOAA has also noted the historic speed at which Great Lakes water levels rose from January 2013 to December 2014.

Because water level changes impact many different communities, the funded projects will focus on different aspects of water level fluctuations.

Paul Drevnick, an assistant research scientist at the University’s Biological Station and the School of Natural Resources and Environment, is researching land damages caused by water level fluctuation in Emmet County, which is located in the northwest tip of the Lower Peninsula. The county is one of the oldest coastal settlements of the Great Lakes region, and includes populated communities such as Mackinaw City and Petoskey.

“Much of the shoreline of Emmet County has low slopes, resulting in major changes in shoreline configuration between low and high water,” he said.

Drevnick said his team’s goal is to identify land that is vulnerable to the water level fluctuations and develop plans to monitor and reduce damage.

Land damage can change local land planning and zoning policy decisions. Richard Norton, chair and associate professor in the Urban and Regional Planning Program at Taubman College, said predicting how much water levels change would be important for residents who want to live near the lakeshore.

“The real challenge is when lake levels are low for an extended periods of time, people tend to want to build houses and cottages closer to the water,” Norton said.

Frank Marsik, an associate research scientist in the Department of Atmospheric, Oceanic and Space Science who was also a grant recipient, wrote in an e-mail interview that his project will focus on forces that drive water level fluctuation and how this might affect fisheries in the area.

Additionally, Marsik’s team is aiming to help indigenous people in the region, including federally recognized Native American tribes, adapt to the changing water levels.

“For the indigenous peoples of the Great Lakes, these issues are not simply related to economics, but also to tribal traditions and spirituality,” he wrote.