Graham Sustainability Institute

Great Lakes Water Levels

Image Courtesy of Michigan Sea Grant

After more than a decade of decline, water levels in Lakes Michigan and Huron reached historic lows in 2013, impacting the economy and ecology of the region. Then during 2013 and 2014 the same lakes came close to setting another record as they experienced one of the largest two-year gains in water levels in recorded history, and underscoring the dynamic nature of the Great Lakes system.

Determining what to do about these changing levels becomes increasingly complex as one considers relatively stable water levels on the lower Lakes Erie and Ontario, contentious debate over engineering options, uncertainty about climate change impacts, and the wide range of affected stakeholders.

See:    IA Report Executive Summary  |   Full IA Report  |    Great Lakes Water Levels IA Resources Page

Process & Findings

To help decision makers address the challenges and opportunities posed by Great Lakes water level variability, the Emerging Opportunities Program and Water Center at the Graham Sustainability Institute initiated an Integrated Assessment (IA) that asked:

What environmentally, socially, politically, and economically feasible policy options and management actions can people, businesses, and governments implement in order to adapt to current and future variability in Great Lakes water levels?

With a focus on Lakes Michigan-Huron, the IA aimed to transform extensive existing research about water levels, flows, and impacts into practical, adaptive strategies to address issues facing shoreline property owners and managers. 

The IA was informed by a binational advisory committee that provided input and advice reflecting the views of key stakeholder groups. It included collaborative efforts among four multidisciplinary U.S. and Canadian research teams and Great Lakes shoreline communities, as well as a synthesis of findings to identify opportunities for the region.

The final report integrates and builds upon the work of the local projects, drawing upon additional peer-reviewed materials and expert peer review, to demonstrate variation and similarities among the communities’ needs and to identify insights for the basin more broadly. It discusses options for responding to water level variability with a focus on four key approaches: Planning and CoordinationShoreline Stabilization and Protection; Land Use and Shoreline Management Policies; and Education and Outreach.

You can download the project deliverables and learn more about the process on the Great Lakes Water Levels IA Resources webpage.

Project Teams

During Phases I and II of the overall project, four teams worked with community partners to assess impacts from and adaptive options for water level variability. Click on the projects below to learn more about these place-based assessments.

For more information, please contact Maggie Allan at (734) 763-0749 or

The University of Michigan Graham Sustainability Institute and Water Center, Michigan Coastal Zone Management Program, and NOAA provided a total of $200,000 to 4 project teams in 2015.