Walking the Water Line — a Legal Right, But Difficult as Great Lakes Levels Rise

Pack away those dreams of walking miles from bay to bay along the shores of Lake Michigan this summer—unless you want to get wet, that is—reports Linda Dewey for the Glen Arbor Sun.

The U.S. Supreme Court reaffirmed the public’s right to walk the Great Lakes shoreline in February when it declined to hear an Indiana case filed by riparian landowners who live along the south shore of Lake Michigan. But with near-record breaking high water levels this spring, the reality isn’t so simple.

“Public spaces, infrastructure, and Great Lakes beaches are underwater,” says FLOW founder and president Jim Olson. “We see the effects of rising Great Lake water levels everywhere, from Chicago’s treasured waterfront, to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, to Clinch Park here in Traverse City.”

“The question becomes: What does this mean, and what might citizens do about it?”

Legally, the Public Trust Doctrine protects the rights of citizens to walk along the beach or shore in the area below the Natural or Ordinary High Water Mark (OHWM) along the Great Lakes, along with the rights of fishing, boating, and swimming, explains Olson. But what happens when the water rises above the Natural High Water level or mark?

The Public Trust Doctrine assures walking the beach along the shore above the Natural High Water Mark as long as people walk within the so-called “swosh” or wet zone. This is why the doctrine relies on the definition of “natural”—the beach defined by wave action and other natural forces. Generally, this means that if you stay within the wet, compacted sand or stones you are safe and not trespassing on the property of riparian landowners.

So when the water is high, that means that walking the Great Lakes shoreline along private property is allowed. Plopping down with your beach towels, cooler, or firewood is not.

Climate Change Infringes on Public Trust

“The public is also right to wonder: what happens when the water rises to the toe or up a bluff, completely shutting off public access along the shore?” Olson said.

Legally, the Public Trust Doctrine prohibits any interference or impairment of the public’s right to access and walk along the shore. Members of the public can insist, by court action if necessary, that the interference or impairment must be prevented or minimized by those who are responsible.

In the case of the current extremely high water levels, the most recent United Nations International Panel on Climate Change pins the cause of  unprecedented high water levels in the Great Lakes on the effects on climate, evaporation, precipitation caused by greenhouse gases.

So, legally, citizens have a right to demand—through lawsuits if necessary—that government and industries causing higher and higher levels of global warming reduce their greenhouse gases. Why? Because their action or inaction is impairing one of the public’s valuable protected rights—access to walk along the shore–in violation of the Public Trust Doctrine.

Danger at Sleeping Bear Dunes

The Glen Arbor Sun reports that with the “Ordinary High Water Mark” on Sleeping Bear Bay currently under water and cliffs marking the Natural High Water Mark, the question of where one can walk the beach becomes more than a question of trespassing or the Public Trust. Now the issue is safety.

That has prompted staff at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, in northwest lower Michigan to discourage the public from running down popular water-facing dunes or cliffs like the overlook from Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive.

The issue is serious—and potentially dangerous. National Lakeshore Deputy Superintendent Tom Ulrich said that Lakeshore staff recently had a meeting to figure out how to help climbers stuck on the dune below the Pierce Stocking overlook. They used to help those not in need of immediate life support walk back down to the shoreline and then south to North Bar Lake (sometimes with the help of their ATV, if needed).

“No more!” Ulrich said. “That route is impossible now. You cannot walk to North Bar Lake.” The only alternative is calling a boat out of Leland, which will take an additional 30-60 minutes to arrive.

“That’s why, this year, we’re going to try to let people know this is a really bad choice … to descend that slope, because our rescue is so limited.”

The problem exists up and down the Lake Michigan shoreline. One beach at the Indiana Dunes National Park is temporarily closed because wave action has created a cliff-enclosed beach. Walkers are also warned not to walk out on piers when waves break over them for fear they will be washed away.

On May 20, ABC Channel 57 in Indiana reported that last year was the deadliest ever for Lake Michigan with 42 deaths. This year has already seen seven fatalities, according to the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project.

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