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Howard A. Learner

Great Lakes Flooding – Hope for the Best, Plan for the Worst

Watch out for what’s coming next with forecasts of Great Lakes flooding this summer.

We’re facing the wettest May of the past 100 years. You’ve seen the photos and videos of Michigan and Ohio communities being evacuated, and Chicago’s downtown skyscrapers and Fox River area suburbs being flooded by the record rains.

That’s from swollen rivers. Watch out for what’s coming next with forecasts of Great Lakes flooding this summer.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ newest forecast paints a chilling picture of super high water levels in Lake Michigan and Lake Huron, peaking in July and August. Higher water levels than any time since the disastrous “Great Flood of 1986.” Not so great news. And look out – especially if the high water is whipped up by high winds and waves.

This is both a climate change story and an economic one as the flooding attacks our homes, businesses and the places where we live, work and play. We need to mitigate climate change, which Midwest scientists conclude is exacerbating extreme weather events including more intense rainstorms. ELPC’s state-of-the-science Assessment of the Impacts of Climate Change on the Great Lakes report by 18 leading Midwest and Canadian university scientists explains the climate realities. The solutions require both innovations in clean energy and clean transportation, and policy actions at the global, federal, state and local levels.

Let’s also sensibly adapt by rethinking the Great Lakes shoreline’s built environment in light of climate change realities. There are high-risk areas where flooding can have particularly devastating impacts. Consider the industrial and storage facilities with hazardous and toxic materials along the shoreline that were not designed with the higher lake levels in mind. Consider the many residential apartment buildings and streets on Chicago’s south side (South Shore) and north side (Rogers Park) that are literally sited by and on Lake Michigan.

What are the key next steps?

Preparedness first! Flooding is coming, and that reality is understandably lost in the overwhelming COVID-19 public health crisis. ELPC is and will continue to raise Great Lakes flooding challenges with policymakers and in public forums to help better prepare for the worst risks and threats.

Map the site-specific flooding risks and threats. We need to focus better on where the emerging risks are. For example, industrial and storage facilities with hazardous and toxic materials along the shoreline, such as the combined disposal facility in the 10th Ward and the Lake Calumet Cluster on Chicago’s southeast side, were not designed with higher lake levels in mind. Look at what’s happening now as floodwaters are “commingling” with Dow Chemical’s on-site containment ponds in Midland, Michigan.

CMAP and the other regional planning agencies are doing their jobs, but rising waters require them to prepare for a degree of coastal erosion and flooding not previously anticipated.

ELPC legal and policy experts will work with these agencies and GIS mapping specialists to assess some of the riskiest places and flag where protective actions are needed. That might include, for example, moving or closing down coal ash ponds, toxic disposal and storage facilities, and other operations that pose undue risks with much higher water levels.

Develop solutions for the shoreline’s built environment by modernizing land use and zoning laws as well as environmental engineering approaches to adapt to the new mostly higher water level realities. Let’s assess ways of using natural systems (e.g., wetlands restoration) and policy changes (e.g., Chicago selling more water at high-level times to suburbs that are now relying on limited groundwater resources) to help adapt and alleviate a little pressure.

This rethinking will require land-use planning, zoning, science, environmental engineering, hydrology and creativity. ELPC is working with partners and public officials who bring other solution tools to the table. We’re going to need to put all the tools to work.

Check out the recent webinar on What Has Caused Great Lakes Levels to Increase? with presentations by Professor Drew Gronewold, Bernie Gigas and me, as well as the coverage in the  Traverse City Record Eagle.

Thank you for your engagement and support for ELPC’s effective advocacy in these challenging times. We really are all in this together when it comes to healthy communities and safe clean water for all.

Howard A. Learner,

Chief Executive Officer & Executive Director

Howard Learner is an experienced attorney serving as the President and Executive Director of the Environmental Law & Policy Center. He is responsible for ELPC’s overall strategic leadership, policy direction, and financial platform.

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