Press Release

ELPC Report Visualizes Potential Flooding and Toxic Risks Along Lake Michigan’s Shoreline in Four States

Report recommends reevaluating the risks of lakeshore projects, updating zoning laws and practices to reflect new climate realities, and investing in nature-based solutions

Lake Michigan – The Environmental Law & Policy Center (ELPC) today released a new report identifying 12 areas along Lake Michigan in four states – Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana and Michigan – that face potential flooding that could release harmful toxins or damage nearby homes and businesses due to increasingly extreme water levels and storms exacerbated by climate change.

The hotspots include industrial facilities with hazardous materials and contaminated waste sites, wastewater treatment plants, densely populated communities and businesses near the shoreline, and lakefront transportation infrastructure that have already experienced significant flooding from Lake Michigan in recent years. Some of those sites are in environmental justice communities where residents are already disproportionately burdened by long-term, harmful environmental exposures.

“The biggest risk is that these changes in the climate, in hydrology, or the water levels could exceed the capacity of coastlines, infrastructure and homes to handle those changes.” -Dr. Drew Gronewold, UMSEAS

ELPC’s Rising Waters: Climate Change Impacts and Toxic Risks to Lake Michigan’s Shoreline Communities report informs Lake Michigan state policymakers and communities of the risks in their backyards and identifies actions to help mitigate flooding-induced industrial pollution and infrastructure damage along the shoreline.

ELPC analyzed Lake Michigan’s entire shoreline and created detailed visualization maps of potential rising waters using data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Office for Coastal Management. The maps show where floodwaters could reach if lake levels rose higher than current records.

“The Great Lakes are our freshwater treasure, but climate change is increasingly causing more extreme lake levels whipped up by storm winds leading to destructive waves,” said Howard Learner, ELPC’s Executive Director. “It’s time for us to rethink the Great Lakes shoreline’s built environment to reassess the risks from industrial facilities with hazardous materials, as well as to our homes. Policymakers and public officials should step up to deploy all of the water management tools in the toolbox to strengthen shoreline resilience.”

Drew Gronewold, Associate Professor at the University of Michigan’s School for Environment and Sustainability, who recently spoke about changing Lake Michigan water levels at an ELPC webinar, noted that “in terms of climate change, the long-term signal that’s very clear for us in the Great Lakes is wetter and warmer.” He added, “The biggest risk is that these changes in the climate, in hydrology, or the water levels could exceed the capacity of coastlines, infrastructure and homes to handle those changes.”

The specific hotspots around the lake include: a coal plant with poorly-maintained coal ash ponds adjacent to Lake Michigan in Sheboygan, Wisc.; an industrial cluster north of Chicago in Waukegan, Il., with several Superfund sites and an aerospace coating facility; on Chicago’s Southeast Side, considered an environmental justice community, three sites within two miles of each other are a Confined Disposal Facility containing toxic dredging waste, a shipping yard, and a shuttered metal shredding plant; U.S. Steel Gary (Ind.,) Works; and the City of South Haven (Mich.) Wastewater Treatment Plant, located on the Black River near Lake Michigan.

Some of the hotspots have already experienced flooding that caused extensive damage to nearby communities and ecosystems or dumped toxins beyond permissible limits into Lake Michigan. Others are precariously positioned on the shoreline and could release hazardous materials to nearby populations or into Lake Michigan in the event of high-water and high-wave incidents as visualized in the report’s detailed mapping.

“Recent studies paint a stark picture of the climate-related changes in store for the Great Lakes, including the likelihood of higher lake levels,” said Donald Wuebbles, emeritus atmospheric sciences professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and lead author of the Assessment of the Impacts of Climate Change on the Great Lakes that ELPC released in 2019. “We have already started to see the harmful effects of extreme storms and fluctuating water levels in the past few decades. It is vitally important that we take action now to protect the lakes and our shorelines from further damage.”

To mitigate these potential dangers on Lake Michigan’s shores, the report offers a broad range of recommendations. At the state and local level, policymakers should work together with community members to reassess vulnerabilities, reevaluate risks of lakeshore projects, update zoning and planning laws and practices, and invest in green infrastructure. At the federal level, we should make sure Congress fully funds the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative for fiscal year 2023 at $400 million, and other programs that are part of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act passed last year.

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