Land use changes driven by population growth and habitat loss and degradation continue to stress the health of the Great Lakes, according to a recent report jointly issued by federal environmental agencies in the U.S. and Canada.
The annual State of the Great Lakes Report, released late last month, uses 40 sub-indicators examined by more than 110 authors to assess the health of the lakes.
While the report overall found Lake Michigan’s health to be “fair and unchanging,” the region faces ongoing pressure from lakeshore and rural real estate development.
Land use changes include the construction of new infrastructure, expanding agriculture and lakeshore building. In Michigan, these changes are driven by migration to the western lakeshore and growing populations in non-urban areas, said Alan Steinman, director of the Annis Water Resources Institute at Grand Valley State University.
The West Michigan lakeshore has become increasingly attractive to new residents — Ottawa County alone gained about 35,000 people in the last decade, while Allegan and Muskegon counties have also gained steadily, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. As communities expand to accommodate more people, natural cover like forests and fields are replaced with hardened surfaces like asphalt, Steinman said.
Water passing over an artificial surface like a parking lot or driveway has more opportunities to pick up contaminants, which can then be carried into Lake Michigan without the benefit of being filtered through the ground.
“So instead of that water naturally percolating down through the ground and being filtered, it’s just running straight to the lake and increasing the amount of contaminants and the speed at which those contaminants arrive into our water bodies,” said Brandon Krumwiede, a Great Lakes geospatial coordinator with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and one of the report authors.
Lakeshore development also places pressure on a key ecosystem in coastal wetlands.
“The local municipalities want development, they want a tax base. People want to live by and see the Great Lakes,” Steinman said. “And coastal wetlands, for a lot of people, are not looked at as this wonderful ecological habitat. They’re looked at as a place where mosquitoes can crop.”
According to Krumwiede and Steinman, these wetlands are not only a critical habitat for species essential to Michigan’s natural food web, but also a natural filtration system for water headed into the Great Lakes.
Fluctuating water levels — including recently high levels — bring another complexity. Installing seawalls and other forms of shoreline hardening have become the norm for maintaining lakefront property. While hardening protects properties in the short term, it can have negative consequences for the ecosystem and downstream neighbors, researchers say.
“A lot of [shoreline hardening] has happened over the last decade in response to the high water levels that we’ve experienced in the Great Lakes,” Krumwiede said. “There’s a lot of these alterations that are occurring because of our affection for the water, but that can also have damaging repercussions.”
Engineered protections against high water may keep properties from washing into the lake, but they come with consequences.
“While you might have protected this section of shoreline, you may actually be causing harm to your neighbor or your neighbor three houses down because of that armoring,” Krumwiede said.
Shoreline hardening changes near-shore currents and the natural courses of sediment transport along the lakeshore — changes that can exacerbate erosion downstream and alter habitats, according to researchers.
Moreover, restoring hardened stretches of shoreline to a natural shoreline has positive effects on the entire ecosystem, Steinman said.
“That’s going to improve the habitat, that’s going to allow the vegetation to come back,” he said. “And once the vegetation comes back, the bugs come back. And when the bugs come back, the fish come back, and when the fish come back, the people come back.”
Property values fluctuate with water levels
Water levels in Lake Michigan reached an all-time high around 2018, Steinman said. Although they have since dropped, they’re still above the long-term average, presenting an ongoing challenge to lakefront property owners.
The last decade has set records for both high and low water levels in Lake Michigan, keeping waterfront property owners on their toes. The high levels also put a damper on waterfront property sales.
“To put in a seawall, you’re running anywhere from probably $50,000 to $300,000 or $400,000,” said Curt Carini, a West Michigan broker and owner of Holland-based Carini & Associates Realtors. “People aren’t necessarily wanting to buy those properties to then spend another $50,000 or $400,000 to try and keep it from falling into the lake.”
Loss of beaches also weighed down property values, Carini said.
However, demand for lakeshore property remains high, said Karly Smothers, maintenance and customer service manager at Lake Michigan Cottages LLC, a vacation rental and property management company operating along Lake Michigan. Many of the properties that Lake Michigan Cottages manages have put in rock or sand retaining walls as an extra safety precaution, Smothers said.
While a wide array of contributing factors make it difficult to predict water level changes, Steinman said climbing global temperatures and extreme weather events associated with climate change will likely contribute to similarly extreme water levels in Lake Michigan in the future.
Krumwiede said a systems approach — an understanding of the Great Lakes that takes the entire region’s ecosystems and developments and their effects on one another into account — can help people look beyond their local geography.
“This is where it’s important to be thinking about it outside of the interstate boundaries,” Krumwiede said. “What happens here in Kenosha, what does that mean for the folks down in Waukegan, or similarly down into Chicago?”
Steinman added that the issue in West Michigan is that “the bluff is so abrupt and the homes are built as close to the water as possible to get the best possible views. These homes are just very vulnerable.”
Nature-based solutions can help to offset that vulnerability without hardening the shoreline. For instance, allowing emergent vegetation like cattails and bulrushes to grow along the shoreline can protect lakefront property from erosion by diffusing the force of waves, Steinman said.
Like wetlands, this vegetation is important but unpopular. Because it obstructs views of the water and makes navigation difficult, lakeshore property owners tend to want to tear it out, Steinman said.
“It’s not weeds. They’re actually doing an ecological service and function for the ecosystem, benefiting all and the beauty of ecosystem services. They’re doing it free of charge and providing that service to humans,” Steinman said. “It’s just a matter of convincing the humans that they need it … that it’s in their best interest.”