Industrial Facilities, Contaminated Sites Face Flooding

According to a new report, more than 200 shoreline communities around Lake Michigan are at risk from high lake levels and strong storms that could impact industrial facilities and contaminated sites.

Climate change is fueling more extreme Lake Michigan Water levels, along with stronger winds and heavier storms. These conditions exacerbate erosion, beach loss, and damage along the shore. Shoreline communities around the lake have already spent $878 million in just the past two years repairing damages from extreme weather events. Expenses could exceed another $2 billion in the next five years.

Using elevation data prepared by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, analysts identified twelve areas where high lake levels and strong storms could impact industrial facilities, contaminated sites, and communities along Lake Michigan. These maps visualize four flood levels from 584 to 589 feet above sea level. The maps provide a useful starting point for risk assessment, spreading awareness, and prioritizing cleanup.

Chicago’s shoreline communities and the built environment have taken a beating from high Lake Michigan water levels whipped up by high winds and waves. 

Climate change is causing more extreme weather events and unprecedented swings in lake water levels. As Professor Drew Gronewold of the University of Michigan School for Environment and Sustainability explained, Lake Michigan water levels shifted from a record low monthly average of 576 feet in 2013, to a record high of 582.2 feet in 2020.

While scientists expect global mean sea levels to rise somewhat consistently, the Great Lakes are expected to continue to both rise and fall, fueled by an accelerating “tug of war” between numerous factors. In some years, higher temperatures will increase evaporation resulting in lower lake levels. In many years, lower temperatures and broad ice cover, combined with high levels of precipitation, will cause much higher Lake Michigan waters levels for which the current built environment was not designed.

Residential buildings in Chicago’s north-side Rogers Park and south-side South Shore neighborhoods have been battered by water, wind and waves. Houses on the Chicago suburban North Shore, the Northwest Indiana shoreline, and Western Michigan’s lakeshore likewise have been battered. Beaches up and down the lakefront are being washed away and bluffs eroded. Wastewater treatment plants, toxic dredge dumps and other industrial facilities are vulnerable to damage, flooding and toxic release.

“In terms of climate change, the long-term signal for us in the Great Lakes is wetter and warmer,” Professor Gronewold said. “The practical reality is that we need to rethink the Great Lakes shoreline’s built environment in light of the more extreme water levels.”

Adapting to changing conditions and dealing with threats to the local environment and public health and safety will require fundamental policy shifts, and significant federal, state and local financial investments. Policymakers must include critical recommendations from affected communities. Possible action steps include:

  • Reassess infrastructure risks and vulnerabilities in light of higher-than-planned-for Lake Michigan water levels. Too many existing toxic sites – landfills, coal ash storage ponds, and industrial facilities – along the shoreline were built based on outdated water level estimates; they weren’t designed to withstand now-projected higher water levels and flooding. Given climate-related predictions of more extreme lake levels, cleaning up toxic sites is even more important. At a minimum, let’s not make existing problems worse. For example, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has proposed expanding the Confined Disposal Facility, a hazardous waste landfill on Chicago’s Southeast Side right along the Lake Michigan shoreline. Communities should likewise assess the impacts on marinas, water intake pipes and wildlife when water levels are low. Assuring that drinking water intake pipes are safe under both extremely high and low lake water levels is critical. 
  • Update and redesign local land use planning and zoning standards based on today’s water level realities rather than yesterday’s news. Most communities’ planning, zoning and development laws and practices are outdated and based on historic Lake Michigan levels instead of the increasingly more extreme water levels.
  • Invest in nature-based solutions to strengthen shoreline resilience, including restoring wetlands to store water and reduce some pressure by absorbing overflow from Lake Michigan, while also providing more wildlife habitat.  Potentially use nearby rivers and lakes to act as reservoirs for high lake water.
  • Consider new environmental engineering and water management approaches. Green infrastructure, such as permeable pavers, can allow water to directly enter the groundwater, rather than overwhelming city drainage systems, flooding streets and flowing into the lake. Policymakers should explore and reasonably use “all of the water management tools in the toolbox.” 
  • Effectively deploy the recent influx of federal funds, including the additional $1 billion for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, and the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which provides greatly increased funding to address wastewater and storm water threats, and investments in clean drinking water programs.
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