High waves in Lake Michigan along the Chicago shoreline. Credit: L.S. Gerstner (Chicago).

Climate Change

Rising Waters: Climate Change Impacts and Toxic Risks to Lake Michigan’s Shoreline Communities

This report identifies twelve areas where high lake levels and strong storms could impact industrial facilities, contaminated sites, and communities along Lake Michigan.

Climate change is fueling more extreme Lake Michigan Water levels, along with stronger winds and heavier storms. These conditions exacerbate erosion, beach loss, and damage along the shore. The region’s 200+ shoreline communities have already spent $878 million in the past two years repairing damages from extreme weather events, and estimates could reach over $2 billion in the next five years. Now is the time to prepare for the risks ahead.

Using elevation data prepared by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)’s Office for Coastal Management, we identified twelve areas where high lake levels and strong storms could impact industrial facilities, contaminated sites, and communities along Lake Michigan. These maps visualize four flood levels from 584 to 589 feet above sea level. This analysis cannot encompass the full scope of hazards along the shore, but the maps provide a useful starting point for risk assessment, spreading awareness, and prioritizing cleanup.

Use the map below to see summaries of the 12 hotspots around Lake Michigan.

Recommendations

We need to rethink Lake Michigan’s shoreline infrastructure in light of increasingly extreme water levels. Adapting to climate change and dealing with public health threats will require significant federal, state, and local financial investments and policy shifts. Policymakers must work with and include additional recommendations from affected communities.

  • Reassess vulnerable sites – Clean up and reduce risks from toxic sites along the shoreline, including landfills, coal ash ponds, and industrial facilities. Likewise, assess the impacts of low water levels on marinas, water intake pipes, and wildlife.
  • Evaluate risks of new projects – Many planning, zoning, and building practices are based on historic Lake Michigan levels instead of the increasingly more extreme water levels.
  • Invest in green infrastructure – Permeable pavers, rain gardens, and green roofs can absorb and filter stormwater where it falls, rather than overwhelming drainage systems, flooding streets, and flowing into the lake. Restoring wetlands can help absorb overflow from Lake Michigan while providing more wildlife habitat.
  • Effectively deploy federal funds and resources – The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative and the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act provide funding to address drinking water, wastewater, and stormwater threats. Likewise, we should ensure that federal agencies that protect our water have sufficient resources to do their jobs well.

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