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High water

Officials urge caution at beaches, breakwaters, harbors, marinas

Marquette’s Upper Harbor breakwall is pictured on a recent windy day. With high water levels on Lake Superior, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Marquette city officials are urging the public to be cautious around breakwaters, piers or jetties and while swimming, as 35 drownings have been reported so far this year in the Great Lakes. On breakwalls, its important to closely supervise children; wear a life jacket; avoid wet, slippery areas; stay away from the edge; stay off structures when there is high wind or waves; stay away from the edge and do not jump off or swim near the structures. At Marquette’s upper harbor breakwall, the city closes the breakwall gate during instances of high wind and waves. (Journal photo by Cecilia Brown)

By CECILIA BROWN

Journal Staff Writer

MARQUETTE — With Lake Superior’s average water level for August being over a foot higher than its long-term August average and just below the record set in 1952, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is urging the public to exercise caution around breakwaters, piers or jetties, as 35 drownings have been reported so far this year in the Great Lakes.

While “many accidents and incidents near harbor structures occur during the turbulent weather season from late August through December,” the current “higher-than-normal water levels also pose safety threats year-round,” according to the Army Corps.

“The lakeshore attracts local residents and visitors alike,” an Army Corps press release states. “Many people may not be aware of the powerful impacts that strong winds, storms and high water levels can bring to the shoreline and harbor structures.”

Submerged breakwaters, dangerous rip currents and electric shock risks can occur with these water levels, and it’s important for residents of shoreline communities such as Marquette to recognize this, as high water levels can make a walk down the breakaway, a swim or boating in the lake more hazardous, officials said.

Because water circulation can differ with water level changes, it’s important to realize that when water levels, wind and waves increase, the risk of dangerous currents also increases.

Rip currents — fast-moving, narrow currents that flow away from the shore — and structural currents, which occur at fixed structures such as breakwaters and piers and flow away from the shore parallel to the structure, are common causes of drowning, according to the corps.

“Specifically at the Picnic Rocks area, it’s not a place to swim because of those (rip) currents and it’s very dangerous,” Patrol Capt. Mike Laurila of the Marquette City Police Department said. “Our fire department does a good job with putting the warning signs up, the flags up along the beaches. But just keep in mind your abilities. Keep in mind that Lake Superior can change on a dime. And just be cautious of it; although beautiful, it’s dangerous.”

To get out of a rip current, the corps advises to “flip, float and follow” until the current subsides, which can help conserve energy and reduce the risk of drowning.

Boaters should use extreme vigilance in the Great Lakes, corps officials said, as “many piers, docks and portions of breakwaters are currently underwater and not visible above the water surface.”

While Marquette’s marinas remain above water, the corps emphasized that even structures that are visible on a calm day might not be visible when the wind picks up, as winds and storms can push local water levels dramatically higher.

“All of the infrastructure (at) Cinder Pond and Presque Isle marinas in Marquette has so far remained above water with the occasional exception of the boat launch skid piers,” Marquette City Manager Mike Angeli said in an email. “These piers during heavy seiche may temporarily be near or below the surface. Cinder Pond has floating piers so those move with the lake level. Presque Isle would need substantial lake level increases to experience any issues.”

Angeli said all electrical infrastructure remains above water at both marinas and emphasized swimming is prohibited at the marinas.

The corps cautions the public about water-overtopped docks at marinas or public areas that have electrical hook-ups, as they “have the potential to shock someone that has come in contact with the water,” increasing the risk of immobilization and subsequent drowning.

Outside of the marinas, the cement bulkhead that’s adjacent to the Founders Landing Boardwalk “has been within a few inches of the lake level during heavy seiche, but has so far remained above water,” Angeli said.

“There are several old piling structures just under water that present hazards within the Lower Harbor but they are all clearly marked,” Angeli said. “Outside of our harbors, there is a rock reef near the rock cut in Harvey that is mostly submerged, but is marked with navigational beacons.”

For those who enjoy walking on Marquette’s breakwalls, it’s important to recognize that the uneven slippery surfaces, especially when combined with waves, can pose a risk of falling in the water.

With high water levels, large armor stones could be hidden beneath the water’s surface, posing a significant risk for hitting a stone or getting wedged between stones if a person falls or jumps into the water.

“We all love Lake Superior but it’s also very dangerous,” Laurila said. “And I think people really need to heed that advice. I know the breakwalls are a popular place to visit, but if Lake Superior is rough, obviously we need to stay off of them.”

On breakwalls, the corps recommends: closely supervising children; wearing a life jacket; avoiding wet, slippery areas; staying away from the edge; staying off structures when there is high wind or waves; staying away from the edge; and not jumping off or swimming near the structures.

While both breakwaters in Marquette are controlled by the corps, the city has been granted the authority to install and control a gate on the Upper Harbor breakwater at Presque Isle Park “because of the high level of incidents,” Angeli said. The city closes the breakwater gate during high wind and water situations.

“I might add that the most significant reason for us to relocate Lakeshore Boulevard between Wright and Hawley streets is because of the effects of Lake Superior on the shoreline,” Angeli said. “However, this is mostly related to the change in currents caused by the breakaway and not the higher water levels.”

For more water safety resources, visit The Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project at www.glsrp.org.

Cecilia Brown can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 248. Her email address is cbrown@miningjournal.net.

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