ST. JOSEPH — Sometimes you should be careful what you wish for.
Berrien County Sheriff Paul Bailey said that a few years ago lake and river levels were so low that boats were having trouble getting to the marinas, and people were praying for rain.
“Now we have more than we need,” commented Bailey, referring to the near-record levels across the Great Lakes, including Lake Michigan. “I’ve never seen it this high.”
That means that residents and visitors need to take special caution when walking on the St. Joseph piers, where even small waves are lapping over the sides and making conditions treacherous.
Water makes the pier surfaces slippery, Bailey noted, putting people at risk for falls and injuries, even some that can be life-threatening such as head injuries.
The piers are the property of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Lynn Rose, spokeswoman for the agency, said the Corps maintains the pier but local officials are responsible for safety around the piers, which aren’t intended for pedestrians.
But the piers are popular for walking and fishing. Bailey recommended that visitors stay on the raised portion of the piers when the lower levels are wet.
“If the water is rough, stay off the piers,” he said. In November 2015, two young people were swept off the North Pier during a late-season storm and drowned.
Swimmers shouldn’t jump off the piers, because of rocks and other hazards below the surface, Bailey cautioned.
“Go to the beach to go swimming,” Bailey said. “If you want to jump into the water, go to a pool with a diving board. Use that.”
Berrien County has experienced drowning deaths from pier jumping, most recently in 2016.
Signs on the piers, placed by private citizens, warn of the risks and include the names and photos of drowning victims. These are the only caution signs. Other signs state that tampering with life rings is a crime.
Local officials have implemented some pier safety measures for routine conditions, even before the higher lake level created an even greater threat.
County officials placed life rings on the South Pier in 2014, and the city of St. Joseph installed rings last year on the North Pier. Bailey said that life rings are checked daily by deputies. So far, only two have come up missing, carried away by high waves.
Someone who jumps in the water and gets in trouble can put a person coming to their rescue at risk, Bailey pointed out. And there’s no guarantee that a passerby will be able to get the life ring to the person in the water, he said.
Kate Ulrey is the community engagement coordinator for the Heritage Museum, and is in charge of lighthouse tours on the North Pier. She said that structure is higher than the South Pier and hasn’t seen as many overlapping waves.
But Ulrey is on the lookout for conditions that could be unsafe for the many lighthouse visitors. Tours began Memorial Day weekend, and so far 1,132 people have stopped in the inner lighthouse, and 545 intrepid souls have climbed to the top.
Open lighthouse hours and tours can be cancelled due to bad weather. Notices are posted on the Heritage Center website and at the Tiscornia Beach parking lot. Ulrey said they have not had to cancel any dates so far.
“I try to keep it open as long as it’s safe,” Ulrey said. The lighthouse will be open tonight from 7 p.m. to dusk for the summer solstice, along with 10 a.m.-2 p.m. during the day.
Ulrey noted that forecasts call for higher lake levels as the summer progresses.
The Corps of Engineers’ Detroit office reported that precipitation in May was 21 percent higher than average over the Great Lakes basin. The MSU Extension office in Berrien County reported that rainfall in April and May ranged between 10 and 11.5 inches, compared to the normal precipitation of 5.75 inches in the area.
The levels of most of the Great Lakes in May were between 1 and 3 inches higher than previous records, the Army Corps said. By mid-July, Lake Michigan levels are projected to reach the record highs set in 1986.
Contact: jmatuszak@TheHP.com, 932-0360, Twitter: @HPMatuszak