Wayne Jensen sat on his narrow strip of Lake Superior shoreline last month, listening to waves crash against his small cliff and soaking in the scent of woods near Port Wing, Wis., his frequent escape from the bustle of his home in Minneapolis.
Just then, he watched a piece of his paradise disappear. A chunk of land about 15 feet long and about 6 feet wide slid into the big lake, trees and all, as he sat nearby.
“I wanted to start crying. I’m watching this beautiful, pristine shoreline fall into the lake,” Jensen said. “I just stood there in awe.”
With Lake Superior just 2 inches short last month of its record high water level, it wasn’t the first chunk of Jensen’s shoreline to erode recently. And if the gales of November come early, before the water level has a chance to go down as it typically does this time of year, the devastation could be widespread, Jensen and others worry.
Already, the high lake level is sinking fixed docks and causing problems as water seeps into homes on Duluth’s saturated sandy spit known as Park Point. It’s a big change from a decade ago, when water levels sat at a record low; the lake is now 31 inches higher than it was in August and September of 2007.
For the past 10 years, the Lake Superior basin has been getting above average rainfall, said Missy Kropfreiter, a hydraulic engineer with the Detroit District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Last month, for instance, the basin received 30 percent more rainfall than average.
While some property owners have been calling on officials to let more water out of the lake at its gates on the St. Marys River, international regulations dictate outflow.
“This is not just a U.S. facility or a U.S. lake, there is an international interest at stake here ... there’s an official process that has to occur,” Kropfreiter said. “We can’t just rip open a bunch of gates to draw the lake down.”
Authorities are releasing more water than normal: Six of 16 gates are now open, compared with five at this time last year, Kropfreiter said. Years ago, during sustained low-water levels, they opened just a half gate.
Though lakes Michigan and Huron are far below record levels, the water is higher than normal there, too. “It’s always like a balancing act,” Kropfreiter said. Letting out too much from Lake Superior too quickly could produce significant damage downstream.
“We can affect the level of Lake Superior through regulation by a matter of inches,” she said, “whereas Mother Nature can affect the level in a matter of feet.”
Popped the tops
On Duluth’s Park Point, the raised water under the sandy soil has meant lake water seeps into aging, leaky sanitary sewer pipes. It led to such a discharge in the system over the summer that it popped the tops of a few manhole covers on some rainy days, said Eric Shaffer, chief engineer of utilities for the city.
The city is trying to identify homeowners who may have illegally connected their sump pumps into the sewer systems, he said. Other than that, “at the moment there’s not a whole lot we can do,” Shaffer said.
“Rainwater doesn’t have anywhere to go,” he added. “Everything’s saturated.”
Nancy Shaw and her husband found about an inch of water in part of their Park Point basement a few weeks ago. It was the first significant flooding they’ve experienced since the 1960s, several years after they moved in.
“When the lake level is high, it pushes that water through the sand,” she said. “I look at it this way: It’s not like some of the other things going on elsewhere in the country, so I guess as long as we can take care of it ... what are you gonna do?”
Dawn Buck, president of the Park Point Community Club, said residents on both the lake side and the bay side are concerned about the higher water, especially as typically stormy months approach. Many have had basement water and property erosion, she said.
Not knowing what the future holds has most wondering what to do, Buck said.
“Is it climate change? Or is it just a cyclical thing?” Buck wondered aloud. “What can we do? What can we expect?”
The record high level for the lake was set in the mid-1980s, according to data kept since 1918.
While the lake level is in the range that it has been in for nearly 100 years, Kropfreiter, of the Army Corps of Engineers, said scientists are trying to figure out if the latest fluctuation is a long-term trend or something cyclical.
“I can guarantee you that those studies are being conducted,” she said.
‘It’s kind of scary’
Jensen’s property near Port Wing used to have a nice grade with a set of steps going down to the lake to crystal clear water, he said. Those steps have been destroyed over the past three years and now, instead of a slope, the shore has a straight cliff. The water at the shore often looks muddy.
“It’s kind of scary,” Jensen said. “It’s mostly depressing.”
He also wonders where it will end. Wis. 13 runs near the lake in some spots, he said, and he envisions the road could be affected someday.
For now, he’s trying to enjoy the shoreline while he can. But that has been more difficult lately. Jensen used to walk down to the lake soon after he pulled into the wooded spot near his camper on his property, he said. He used to love watching the waves crash. It felt and sounded like the ocean.
Now, he said, it feels more like a threat. “Sometimes I hate to go down to the lake,” he said. “I’m afraid of what I’m going to find.”