Rising Ontonagon River levels threaten property

Kali Katerberg/Daily Mining Gazette The Ontonagon river laps at a building on the banks as the water levels rise to near historic levels.

ONTONAGON — High water levels on the Ontonagon River are eroding property and threatening structures.

Daniel Sullivan owns one such piece of land near the banks and recently paid for emergency measures to stop it from eroding further. “I’ve just stopped my shoreline from disappearing,” Sullivan said. He points to the high water levels on Lake Superior and a series of large storms coming from the north and northeast as the source of the problem.

“They’re just pounding on the shoreline,” Sullivan said.

Data from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers shows Lake Superior is now at an above-average water level.

“We’ve received lots of reports of increased shoreline erosion and increased instances of coastal flooding as these storms have rolled through the Great Lakes,” said Keith Kompoltowicz, chief of watershed hydrology for the Detroit District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. “Most notably the last week of October seemed to be a pretty active week and we’ve seen evidence, both collected by our field employees as well as just local media or just social media, that there’s significant shoreline erosion and coastal flooding.”

Erosion rates are dependent on the storm track, Kompoltowicz said, possibly explaining the situation on the Ontonagon River. Sullivan describes seeing large waves coming off the lake and up the river, where his property is located.

“It’s thousands of dollars to fix that…right now it’s in the tens of thousands for me,” Sullivan said. The idea is to prepare for the potential of further erosion now before piles of snow make modifications impossible. The Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) is allowing emergency permitting for landowners trying to prevent erosion, speeding up the process.

“My fear is that it’s going to get worse before it gets better,” Sullivan said. “What all of us are waiting for is the lake levels to drop again, but if the lake levels continue to rise or stay in this place, we know through history that the spring is when the major erosion happens, and that’s why I’m forced to do this emergency repair.”

Unfortunately, the Army Corps has bad news for landowners on the banks.

“We typically see those storms during the fall months, so certainly over the next several weeks the threat for more instances of erosion and coastal flooding are there, and then with the higher water levels projected into 2018, that will remain a possibility,” Kompoltowicz said.

Sullivan knew owning land near water would come with some erosion risk. However, he has been surprised by the extent and speed of the river in working away the river banks.

“Right now I don’t have a choice. I’ve just got to spend the money to do it, but there’s got to be a lot of other people in the same boat,” Sullivan said.