Michigan forming 'High Water Action Team' to aid residents as Great Lakes levels rise

Following its first high water summit on Monday, several Michigan department heads pledged collaboration and resource sharing in response to the region's high water levels.

The team that will be leading that collaboration will be the Michigan High Water Action Team and will be charged with identifying resources available to local communities, as well as streamlining communications between different agencies and levels of government.

"I called for the Michigan High Water Coordinating Summit to ensure our state agencies lead the way with a highly coordinated and cooperative response to high water impacts," said Gov. Whitmer. "With our local and federal partners, our team will do everything we can with the resources at our disposal to help Michigan families and communities living through extraordinarily difficult circumstances."

Additionally, town hall meetings will be scheduled around the state in the spring, in an effort to disseminate that information to residents.

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Operations for mitigating and responding to water damage have recently ramped up after predictions from the Army Corps of Engineers show lake levels not getting any lower. 

"We've had the wettest September to December on record," said Liesl Clark, head of the Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy. "We've gone from a record low to a record high in record time - in six years. Finally, it also has been the wettest 12-60 month period in 120 years."

These record-breaking measurements have saturated an already wet state to the point that even an average-sized storm could cause inland flooding, Clark went on to say during a media discussion after the summit on Monday. Now, the state must look forward to how it will protect vulnerable communities against predicted lake levels.

"That's the core of the question - there's not a lot of things that could stop mother nature," Clark said. "Some of these solutions are temporary in nature and we foresee challenges going forward."

Besides flooding, other challenges include coastal erosion and infrastructure damage. In an effort to mitigate some of these damages, the state has sped up its permitting process for anyone applying to construct a seawall or barricade. Its agencies also find themselves shifting money around to allocate for potential damages from the lake levels. 

RELATED: Great Lakes expected to break records in 2020 as Michigan cities struggle to prepare

Specifically, Michigan's Department of Transportation and Natural Resources are preparing for the financial risk that a wet 2020 might bring to the state. MDOT Director Brad Wieferich said the department had identified around 40 locations around the state that are most under threat from flooding.

"(We have) estimates it will cost $5 million to address immediate issues, depending on the ultimate fix for repairing slopes or moving roads," he said. "But these (fixes) get real expensive in a hurry."

While they were only preliminary estimates, Wieferich said it might cost $100 million to repair the state's most threatened sites. Unless an emergency declaration is ordered by Whitmer, that money will have to come out of MDOT's budget.

Unfortunately, legislators lobbying for emergency money have been unable to achieve a declaration. Those orders typically come from county executives, and only after specific events that caused damage. Longterm shoreline erosion and gradual flooding from increasing levels don't fall under that category.

The goal of the High Water Action Team will be to assess where these threats are greatest and what kinds of resources might be available that could be channeled to offset damages.

Jack Nissen is a reporter at FOX 2 Detroit. You can contact him at (248) 552-5269 or at Jack.Nissen@Foxtv.com