Copious Amounts Of Debris In Lake Michigan Putting Boaters And Swimmers In Danger

May 15, 2020

Piles of debris sit on shore near the Point Betsie Lighthouse in Frankfort.
Credit Dan Wanschura / Interlochen Public Radio

As if shoreline erosion wasn't enough, communities and property owners on Lake Michigan are now dealing with another problem due to record high water levels - trash. Up and down the lake, large amounts of it are washing up on shore. 

“There’s a tremendous amount of debris floating in the lake,” says Kurt Hall, a shoreline contractor at a job site in Mears this past March.

He says all the debris in the lake this year is the worst he’s ever seen.

“Pressure treated wood from decks, steps, boardwalks, seawalls, docks,” says Hall. “We found half of a pontoon boat with a motor on it.”

Unfortunately trash and debris in the lake isn’t uncommon, but it’s especially bad this year because of high water levels. High waves and erosion drag all sorts of things off the shoreline and into the lake. Eventually, that debris either sinks or washes back on shore.

In Ludington, city manager Mitch Foster sees a similar story, especially after a storm.

“Barricades or barrels from street projects, I’ve seen trees, full outgrown trees wash up, full stairwells from beachfront properties, sections of dock, we’ve seen full garbage bags full of trash,” recalls Foster.

Normally there would be more community cleanup but Foster says COVID-19 restrictions have limited those efforts. That leaves city crews to clean up most of it. But even after they do, he says more debris just washes up.

“We are having to spend more time cleaning up different locations than we have had in a long time,” Foster says. “What that means is we aren’t able to get to some of the other things that may have higher importance to a larger number of folks in the community.”

Foster says things like filling potholes, cleaning out storm sewers and other city maintenance can fall to the wayside.

Besides being expensive and time consuming to clean up, debris floating around Lake Michigan is also very dangerous. It can float just under the surface of the water making it hard to spot for boaters.

“There’s a very real danger of substantial damage if a boat moving at a high rate of speed hits debris,” says Jerrod Sanders, assistant director of the Water Resources Division for the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, & Energy. “Everything from catastrophic damage like tearing the prop or motor off, to hull damage that could threaten the viability of that boat to be able to stay above the water.”

“In a lot of cases this is construction debris and so even if it’s generally made out of wood, there could be nails and metals attached to it,” Sanders says. “The sort of dynamic nature of the Lake Michigan beaches means those materials can be sort of buried in the sand and wash back out of the sand.”

As the weather warms and COVID-19 restrictions eventually relax, more people at beaches could be a problem. In extreme cases, Sanders says some might even have to close to allow cleanup to take place, like what happened at a beach in Ludington a few years ago.

Just off M-22 in Elmwood Township, Leelanau County Sheriff Mike Borkovich is also seeing more lake debris this year. He points to a small dilapidated storage shed near the edge of West Grand Traverse Bay and says it’s part of the problem.

“The waves have hit that, it’s drawn it halfway into the water as you can see, it’s about halfway submerged right now,” says Borkovich. “This thing needs to come out of here like right now, today or this week.”

Some of the debris floating around in Lake Michigan is natural and can’t be helped. But Borkovich says in other cases, it’s a matter of property owners taking responsibility for their belongings. A couple weeks ago, the Leelanau County Sheriffs Department responded to an empty boat that had been carried out into the lake. The U.S.Coast Gaurd even got involved since it wasn’t immediately clear if someone had fallen overboard.

“So when people store things along these shorelines — sometimes no ill-intention on their part — but they’ll store the stuff and then they’ll leave for six months,” he says, "Even if they’re here — [they may] not realize that the water can grab this stuff and literally pull it back in.”

Other than warn people about debris, Borkovich says there’s not a lot the sheriff’s department can do. He says if property owners secure those items now, that could save Lake Michigan from even more debris later.