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Then and Now: Lake Michigan on the Rise

Image from nearly the same spot in 2009. Photo by Myles Dannhausen Jr.

Lake Michigan water levels are nearing record highs, causing property owners to take substantial measures to keep properties safe and shorelines intact. The waters are expected to rise even higher in June and July. In Chicago, owners of taller boats are being warned that they may get stuck inside harbors with bridges or inside the Lake Shore Drive Bridge on the Chicago River.

But it wasn’t that long ago that high water levels were far from the minds of Door County residents, as these photos from 2009 illustrate. Lake Michigan dropped to a record low of 576.1 feet in January of 2013, and the International Joint Commission of Canadian and U.S. experts spent several years – and $3.6 million – studying declining lake levels.

View looking south along the Ephraim shoreline taken May 28. Photo by Len Villano.
A view of that same shoreline in 2009, when piers were accessible only thanks to extensive dredging. Photo by Myles Dannhausen Jr.

Ephraim water levels, 2009. Photos by Myles Dannhausen Jr.

That study ultimately determined that a drop in rain and snowfall in the Great Lakes Basin was primarily to blame for the decline.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, all of the Great Lakes have been above monthly average levels since 2014. As of May 29, the water level stood at 581.95 feet as recorded at the Sturgeon Bay Canal.

When Lake Michigan water levels plummeted in 1999, as shown in these photos of the shallow Ephraim harbor in 2008, the dredging of artificial channels for access to piers and marinas became a widespread practice. Photo by Dan Eggert.