As the rain continued to deluge Southwest Michigan through June, Brian Bailey kept an eye on Lake Michigan.

As the director of Berrien County parks, Bailey took note of when the shoreline along Silver Beach County Park began to advance.

Midway through July, the weather has grown warmer and the amount of precipitation has lessened. Beachgoers have flocked to the sand, but portions of Berrien and Van Buren counties’ beaches are now underwater.

“The repeat visitors have been shocked by the shrinking beaches,” Bailey said. “Whether you believe in climate change or not, this does bring awareness to the environment. I hope everybody is safe when they come to recreate around water.”

Portions of Silver Beach County Park have been reduced to a narrow strip of sand just wide enough for a foot path.

Most of the sand between Silver Beach and Lions Park Beach is underwater and the bluff has eroded close to the decks of some homes.

“One of the main concerns I see at Rocky Gap and Lions Park are the metal groins that are sticking out are now underwater. They can be trip hazards,” Bailey said.

According to a recent report from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Lake Michigan levels were around three feet above sea level in April, about two feet above average for that time of year.

The average water level on Lake Michigan last month was less than an inch from the all-time June record, while other Great Lakes set new records for June, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Detroit District reported.

The June 2019 average water level for Lake Michigan-Huron was 581.75 feet, and the record average June water level is 581.79 feet. The lake missed setting a new record June water level by about a half inch.

Chris Schropp, chief of construction for U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Detroit District, said water levels in the Great Lakes basin is primarily determined by precipitation.

“One of the main factors is when we had the polar vortex,” Schropp said. “Extreme cold temperatures caused the lakes to freeze over, which meant no evaporation over the winter months.”

According to Schropp, water levels peak in July and begin to decline toward the end of the month. But that annual cycle can change based on how much rain hits the region.

Schropp said the Army Corps has continued to collect water level data for 100 years and believes there’s no way to determine how long it will be until the levels return to normal.

“It’s not enough information to go by to see a trend,” he said. “We had high levels in the 1950s, it was low in the ‘60s, average in the ‘90s, low in the 2010s and now it’s getting high again.”

No beach, no problem

Lincoln Township Treasurer Terrie Smith has been asked “Where’s the sand?” and “Where’s the beach?” several times this summer.

Lincoln Township Beach is barely recognizable. Smith said the township had to step in and remove the boardwalk that went across the beach to the parking area.

“It eroded so far back we had to take it out because the land was washing out from underneath it,” Smith said. “We had beautiful plans to have a nice boardwalk to go down and around. Thank God this happened before we began work on that.”

Now there is an 8- to 10-foot drop to get from the parking lot to the beach.

And yet, Smith noticed the lack of beach hasn’t stopped beachgoers.

“I went by one day and there were so many people there despite there being no beach,” Smith said. “There’s only five feet of sand before you hit the water. And that’s if there are no high waves.”

Millicent Huminsky has noticed a steady crowd of people at beaches, too.

Huminsky, executive director of the Southwestern Michigan Tourist Council, said the region’s beaches remain the No. 1 draw in Southwest Michigan.

“It’s the reason people vacation here,” she said. “This happens, even to the point where we hit all-time low (water) levels. It’s a cycle we go through.”

Based on parking numbers that Berrien County pulls for Fourth of July at Silver Beach, Bailey said they produced the highest number of visitors in the previous three years.

In 2017, there were 5,844 vehicles compared to 6,459 in 2018. This year, Bailey said the county had 7,184 vehicles come and go.

“We had such a wet spring that it may have pushed the beach crowd here for any chance of good weather,” Bailey said.

However, county revenue was down through the end of June. In 2018, Bailey said the county got about $209,000 through June. In 2019, the total was about $159,000 as park attendance fell amid a rainy month.

The county has also had to make adjustments for how the beach is used due to the high water levels.

At Silver Beach, the county had to eliminate a few of the volleyball courts to accommodate the lifeguard stands. Bailey doesn’t see this as being a permanent problem.

“We are not at risk of losing any infrastructure,” he said.

Greg Grothous, deputy director of public works at St. Joseph, said Tiscornia Beach has lost about half of its beach to Lake Michigan.

“There isn’t a lot of beach there compared to what we would normally see,” he said. “Especially to the north end of the beach. There’s not much from the dune to the water’s edge. I’d say, maybe 75 feet. I’ve seen pictures where there was maybe about 200 feet between the dune and the water.”

Grothous said he began to notice the high levels coming in off Lake Michigan in March. The wave action was starting to scour away the dunes.

It only got worse from there, Grothous said.

In cleaning up debris from the beach, the city has more of a challenge in using the equipment to navigate the beach.

“At times it’s a bit of a losing battle when it comes to cleaning up the beach,” Grothous said. “You can’t continue to work with all the people that are out there.”

But dealing with crowds at a beach that’s gotten smaller is a good problem to have, Grothous said.

“It’s not stopping people from coming. They just have to sit a little closer to one another,” he said. “We’ve definitely seen crowds at Tiscornia. The parking lot is full. The trash cans are filling up. I think they’re getting out there earlier because the space is limited.”

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