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Great Lakes water levels raise breakwater safety concerns

Algoma Harbor breakwater, July 31, 2019 (WLUK/Eric Peterson)
Algoma Harbor breakwater, July 31, 2019 (WLUK/Eric Peterson)
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ALGOMA, Wis. (WLUK) -- Lake Michigan is the deadliest of the Great Lakes when it comes to drownings.

That's according to the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project, which has been tracking drownings in the Great Lakes for nine years.

The group reports 27 people drowned in Lake Michigan this year. At the same time in 2018, 15 people had drowned, which equals a jump of 80 percent this year.

In Northeast Wisconsin, the record high water levels come with a warning from authorities. That includes those using harbors and breakwaters along Lake Michigan.

Even on a calm Wednesday morning, the wake from a fishing boat can make some waves near the Algoma Lighthouse. At the harbor breakwall nearby, Greg Mattson and his family are hiking the concrete causeway with little concern.

"It's a beautiful day out there on the breakwater. A lot of birds," said Greg Mattson of Osceola.

Ellen Cozart and her husband are visiting from Dallas, Texas.

"Well, having not been to Lake Michigan for many, many years, I'm shocked at how high this is," said Cozart.

But many people say they know weather conditions change, and the area can be unpredictable.

"I'd think I'd be awfully careful walking on the breakwater if it was wavy out here," said Mattson.

Wavy indeed. In January, the surging surf swept a 20-foot-tall beacon clean off the south pier in Manitowoc. And in April, gale storm warnings whipped waves 12 feet in the air, pounding places like the lighthouse near Sturgeon Bay.

"The waves may actually break over the top of these walls, and if you're on top of the wall, with that breaking wave, it may actually push you out into the water," said Lt. j. g. Phillip Gurtler of the U.S. Coast Guard.

Gurtler says months of rising lake levels are generally to blame.

"The Coast Guard does not recommend in these kind of conditions, to be out there," he said.

Gurtler says there's debris floating on the water, and in places, boaters have collided with rocks, and even breakwaters. Greg Mattson says his group will enjoy these conditions while they last.

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"I think you have to always be careful on the Great Lakes," he said.

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