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Lake Superior's high water causing headaches

Wayne Jensen says he's lost more than 15 feet of beach along his South Shore Lake Superior waterfront property near Port Wing since water levels pushed above normal levels in 2014. Jensen said huge chunks of clay are eroding off his land into the lake due to wind and wave action, muddying what had been clear water. Lake Superior is nearly a foot above normal and near record highs for this time of year. Photo courtesy Wayne Jensen1 / 2
Water washes over the edge of a Park Point parking lot on Saturday. Lake Superior is nearly a foot above its normal level; covering beaches and yards, flooding plants and causing erosion. (Steve Kuchera / / 2

An incredibly wet year has helped push Lake Superior nearly a foot above its normal water level and inches from its record high level for this time of year while causing headaches for waterfront property owners around the big lake.

So much rain has been falling across the region that Lake Superior actually went up an inch in September, a month it usually drops an inch or more.

The big lake was more than 11 inches above its average level for Oct. 1, more than 4 inches above the level at this time in 2016 and is just 2 inches short of the all-time September high set in 1985, according to U.S. Army Corps of Engineers data.

The current level is 2 feet above the water levels listed on official lake maps and charts.

The high water level is made greater at times by the lake's mysterious sloshing, both large seiches and smaller oscillations that can change water levels by 6 inches or more in a matter of minutes.

Worse yet are strong winds that can pile water up on one end of the lake "especially during the upcoming November and December periods of strong lake storms,'' said Gene Clark, coastal engineering specialist with the University of Wisconsin Sea Grant program. Those gales of November could lead to a "very damaging scenario" along the lakeshore.

The high levels already are causing some high-water blues for people who live closest to Lake Superior, from Spirit Lake on the St. Louis River to Madeline Island. In Duluth, the low spot is Park Point.

"It's causing a lot of erosion problems. You can see it on the beach, the big cuts in the sand where the waves are crashing up so high,'' said Debra McLoughlin, a Park Point resident. "On our side (on the bay) the water has been right to the top of our riprap wall all summer. When the wind blows in, we've had water washing 40, 50 feet up into our yard. That's never happened before in the 13 years we've lived here."

On Wisconsin's South Shore, near Port Wing, Wayne Jensen said he's lost 15 feet of beach to the lake. Huge chunks of red clay now regularly fall off the small cliff on his land and into the lake, especially during storms.

"I built stairs down to the water level, and they're gone now; they fell off with the clay. We lose big chunks of land all the time,'' said Jensen, who's owned the property for 20 years. "We used to go swimming out there, and you could always see bottom. Now, there's so much erosion, it's always muddy. We don't have that clear blue Lake Superior water anymore."

The higher-than-normal trend started in 2014 and will last at least into 2018, data from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers show. The lake was higher in both 1986 and 1996, but neither of those high-water periods lasted as long as the current above-normal period.

The situation will improve over winter months as the lake level drops, part of an annual cycle that bottoms out every April before heading back up, peaking in August. (The lake's all-time low hit in April 1926. The all-time high was in August 1986.)

But if water levels remain above normal all winter, and 2018 turns out to be another wet year, record highs are within reach next summer.

Residents along Park Point already have had hoses and PVC pipe running from their basements or sumps out toward the street, pumps running almost constantly to remove water that's percolating up through the sand that underlays the entire spit of land.

On many days, there's simply no place for that water to go. The water table is so high that water from the bay percolates into the storm sewer system and comes out the storm drains.

"It's doing the opposite of what storm drains are supposed to do. It's giving us more water, not taking it away,'' McLoughlin said.

Ruth McCutcheon said she has lived on the bay side of Park Point for 30 years and that the water level "feels higher now than I can ever remember it. Maybe it's that we're having more storms pushing the water up,'' she said. "I don't know how many tons of rock we put in last year, and it's still not enough to keep the water out."

City of Duluth engineers say the near-record Lake Superior water level also is causing problems with the sanitary sewer system that moves sewage off Park Point and into the city's collection system. Too much water percolating up has spurred raw sewage overflows along Minnesota Avenue, the city said last week. City crews are planning to re-line parts of the Park Point sewer pipe, and the city is working with residents to make sure they aren't pumping clean water into the sewage system.

"We're knocking on doors right now and getting into houses to make sure people aren't putting water into the sanitary sewer system," said Eric Shaffer, the city's chief utility engineer. "But we also have a real problem with many of the lateral lines (sewer lines between homes and the street) are entirely underwater now. Water is just pouring into them and overwhelming the system."

Forecast: Higher than normal

Great Lakes forecasters for the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers say they expect the big lake to continue trending higher than normal into 2018 and that there's a chance it will remain near all-time monthly highs early next year.

"Our forecast stays pretty well above average for the next six months, between 8 and 11 inches above average,'' Lauren Fry, a hydrologist in the Corps' Detroit District office, told the News Tribune. "We are not forecasting any record monthly highs during the next six months, but that depends on the water supply."

That water supply was 27 percent above average in September. In Duluth, more than 30 inches of rain has fallen this year. That's more than 8 inches above normal, a nearly 30 percent surplus. Sault Ste. Marie, Mich. is up 5.5 inches above normal rainfall for the year with Marquette up more than 4 inches.

The current high water trend may seem even higher because it follows a drastically low-water cycle that bottomed out in 2007 with record monthly low levels set in August and September.

The International Lake Superior Board of Control has ordered more water dumped out of the big lake's outlet. But the board has to balance upstream interests and downstream interests. People downstream on the Great Lakes don't want too much water, either, especially after Lake Ontario saw all-time record highs and damaging flooding earlier this year.

So much water is being released out of the lake into the St. Mary's River that the International Lake Superior Board of Control last week warned anglers and people who use hiking trails near the river to be aware of rapidly-rising and fast-moving water and possible flooding near the river.