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Great Lakes Coastal Dynamics and Local Master Planning

The Great Lakes extend some 750 miles from east to west, touch some 4,500 linear miles of U.S. shoreline, and cover a combined surface area roughly the size of the United Kingdom.(1) As with ocean coasts, the Great Lakes are large enough to generate substantial hazards to shorelands both from ongoing erosional processes and from periodic storm events.

The Great Lakes are physically and institutionally different from the ocean. Most prominently, the Great Lakes are geologically young features subject to background erosion rates of about 1 to 2 feet per year throughout much of the basin, while simultaneously subject to fluctuations in standing lake water levels on the order of 1 or 2 meters over the course of decades.(2) Because of lake level fluctuations, Great Lakes shorelines can appear to be retreating lakeward (accreting) for extended periods while lake levels are low, only to move substantially inland as water levels again rise—sometimes from a single storm event. It is not clear how climate change will affect the Great Lakes overall, but it will likely increase the frequency and intensity of storms.(3)

Institutionally, the Great Lakes are also unique because most of the states bordering them—including Michigan—are Northwest Territory states with civil townships (i.e., representing an added layer of local government in addition to counties and municipalities), yielding highly fragmented local governance of Great Lakes shorelands.(4) All of the Great Lakes states have also applied the Public Trust Doctrine to their Great Lakes shorelands, yielding state-local legal and policy institutional arrangements that are highly diverse and complex.(5)

The International Joint Commission (IJC) released several reports in the early 1990s, such as the Land Use and Management Report of the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Levels Reference Study,(6) which collectively began to document the effects of Great Lakes lakelevel variation on shoreline dynamics, the impacts of those dynamics on natural and built resources, and the conflicts and challenges those impacts were yielding with regard to shoreland area management. Other agencies and authors have since issued similar reports, guidebooks, and ‘toolkits’ designed to provide arrays of different kinds of shoreland area management options, along with generalized discussions of their applicability, strengths, and weaknesses.(7) Nonetheless, beyond these more generalized studies, little research has been conducted to systematically evaluate the acceptance, adoption, and usefulness of those various options in context through actual attempts at implementation.

Partnership with LIAA and Michigan Coastal Communities

Using recent and ongoing work on Great Lakes coastal habitats and shoreline dynamics, the University of Michigan (UM), Michigan Technological University (MTU), and the non-profit Land Information Access Association (LIAA) in collaboration with the Michigan Office of the Great Lakes program staff and local Michigan communities, this report creates a set of methods to analyze shoreland dynamics, fiscal impacts, environmental vulnerabilities, visualized high risk areas, and land use impacts. In an effort to make planning decisions based on known information about the Great Lakes systems, the University of Michigan and Michigan Technological University have collaborated with LIAA to identify and analyze hazard areas and work with community groups to plan for better coastline management.

The project team includes UM and MTU researchers, community planning staff from LIAA, and stakeholders from Michigan communities. The Principal Investigator is Richard K. Norton (UM Urban and Regional
Planning). Co-investigators include: Guy Meadows (Michigan Tech Great Lakes Research Center); Maria Arquero (UM Urban and Regional Planning); Lan Deng (UM Urban and Regional Planning); Larissa Larsen (UM Urban and Regional Planning); Jennifer Maigret (UM Architecture); Paul Webb (UM School of Natural Resources and Environment); and Catherine Riseng (UM School of Natural Resources and Environment). Additional research capacity was contributed by: Stephen Buckman (Post-Doctoral Researcher, UM Urban and Regional Planning), Zachary Rable (Research Associate, UM Urban and Regional Planning), and many Master
of Urban Planning students from UM Urban and Regional Planning.

This multi-disciplinary project team has integrated scientific knowledge and research with local planning processes in coastal communities in Michigan. The hope is that coastal communities can use these methods in
the future to better assess the potential to restore, retrofit, and recouple their dynamic shorelands through state shoreland management policies and laws, as well as with local master plans, regulations, and polices. As local communities explore these methods and ideas on their own, they will become more adaptive and resilient to climate shocks along their coastlines.

Funding for the project came from the University of Michigan Water Center and the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality’s Coastal Zone Management Program.


(1) EPA (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency). 2014. The Great Lakes: An Environmental Atlas and Resource Book.

GLERL (U.S. Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory). 2014. About Our Great Lakes: Great Lakes Basin Facts.

MDEQ (Michigan Department of Environmental Quality). 2014. Shorelines of the Great Lakes.,4561,7-135-3313_3677-15959–,00.html.

(2) Norton, Richard K. and Guy A. Meadows. 2014. Land and water governance on the shores of the Laurentian Great Lakes. Water International 39(6):901-920.

(3) Gronewold, Andrew D., et al. 2013. Coasts, water levels, and climate change: A Great Lakes perspective. Climatic Change 120:697-711.

(4) Norton, Richard K. , Meadows, Lorelle A. and Meadows, Guy A.(2011) ‘Drawing Lines in Law Books and on Sandy Beaches: Marking Ordinary High Water on Michigan’s Great Lakes Shorelines under the Public Trust Doctrine’, Coastal Management, 39: 2, 133-157, First published on: 19 February 2011 (iFirst)

(5) Norton, Richard K., Guy A. Meadows, and Lorelle A. Meadows. 2013. The deceptively complicated ‘elevation ordinary high water mark’ and the problem with using it on a Great Lakes shore. Journal of Great Lakes Research 39(2013):527-535.

(6) International Joint Commission. 1993. Lake Levels Reference Study: Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin, Annex 2 (Land Use and Management). Working Committee 2 Final Report submitted to the Levels Reference Study Board, March 31, 1993. ISBN 1-895085-46-2.

(7) US Army Corps of Engineers, Detroit District, and Great Lakes Commission. 1999. Living with the Lakes: Understanding and Adapting to Great Lakes Water Level Change. ISBN 0-9676123-0-6.

Ardizone, Katherine A., and Mark A. Wyckoff. 2010. Filling the Gaps: Environmental Protection Options for Local Governments (2nd ed.). Lansing, MI: Michigan Department of Natural Resources and Environment.