By John Callewaert

The University of Michigan’s Graham Sustainability Institute has awarded seven grants, totaling $70,000, to U.S. and Canadian researchers who will help residents of shoreline communities adapt to current and future variability in Great Lakes water levels.

Researchers from 16 U.S. and Canadian universities and organizations will use the $10,000, six-month planning grants to study policy options and management actions available to residents, businesses and government officials in shoreline communities impacted by Great Lakes water-level fluctuations.

The researchers will examine potential adaptation strategies, including the associated environmental, social, political and economic benefits and challenges. Key considerations include reduced property values, education and resiliency planning, shoreline planning, stability and erosion, and climate change.

Later this year, four or five of the seven research teams will be selected to proceed with a detailed 18-month project—beginning this November and ending in April 2017—as part of the U-M’s Great Lakes Water Levels Integrated Assessment. Each of the finalist teams will receive about $50,000 to help communities identify practical, localized options to minimize the negative impacts of Great Lakes water-level fluctuations.

“The purpose of this project is to equip the region with a robust set of water-level adaptive strategies that protect the ecological integrity, economic stability and cultural values of the region,” said John Callewaert, director of the Graham Sustainability Institute’s Integrated Assessment Center.

The seven planning grants will support the following location-specific projects:

  • “Building a Great Lakes lake-level policy for agency-owned and managed lands in northwestern Lower Michigan.” Researchers from Oregon State University and the U-M Biological Station will focus on Emmet County, at the northwestern tip of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula. The study area contains several communities, including Petoskey, Harbor Springs and Mackinaw City.
  • “Huron County shoreline planning proposal for an integrated assessment of water-level fluctuations.” Researchers from the University of Toronto at Scarborough and Environment Canada will focus on the Huron County, Ontario, town of Goderich.
  • “Transformative scenario planning in Collingwood, Ontario, using enhanced visualization techniques.” Researchers from the University of Prince Edward Island, the University of Waterloo and the Ontario Water Center will focus on the town of Collingwood, on Lake Huron’s Georgian Bay.
  • “Planning for an integrated assessment on water-level variability and coastal bluffs in northern Milwaukee County and southern Ozaukee County, Wisconsin.” Researchers from Wisconsin Sea Grant, Concordia University, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and University of Wisconsin-Madison will examine the impacts of changing water levels on an area of high coastal bluffs covering about 26 miles of Lake Michigan coastline in Wisconsin.
  • “Implementing adaptation: Developing land-use regulation and infrastructure policy to implement Great Lakes shoreland area management plans.” Researchers from U-M and Michigan Technological University have been working with the Lake Michigan communities of Ludington, Grand Haven and St. Joseph. They hope to expand their work to other Lake Michigan communities in the state and to Lake St. Clair in Macomb County.
  • “Inclusion of climate-change effects on lake levels in management plans of tribal fisheries.” U-M and Michigan State University researchers will seek to engage federally recognized indigenous tribes in the Great Lakes region to gain a better understanding of the potential impacts of climate-related variability on Great Lakes water levels and on the vulnerabilities of tribal communities, fisheries and governance.
  • “Regional partnerships to assess adaptive responses to Grand Traverse Bay Corridor water-level variations.” Northwestern Michigan College researchers will focus on a project area that includes more than 150 miles of Lake Michigan shoreline near Traverse City in Michigan, from the town of Elk Rapids to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.

Since September 2014, all of the Great Lakes have been above their monthly average levels for the first time since the late 1990s, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The unusually wet conditions of 2013 and 2014 ended a 15-year period of persistent below-average water levels on lakes Superior, Michigan and Huron, including record lows set on Michigan and Huron in early 2013, according to NOAA.

Low lake levels can interfere with commercial shipping, hydropower, recreational boating and tourism, among other things. But above-average water levels can have negative impacts as well, including coastal erosion, flooding and property damage along the shoreline.

The U-M Great Lakes Water Levels Integrated Assessment is a collaborative effort of the Graham Sustainability Institute’s Water Center and its Integrated Assessment Center. The goal is to use place-based, interdisciplinary studies to develop the information, tools and partnerships needed to address the challenges and opportunities posed by water-level variability.

To learn more about the project, click here.